PARADIGM SHIFT| Decentralization and conflict management in multicultural societies

MULTICULTURALISM has become a challenge for most countries with fragmented societies. In a global village with international order, many countries are now confronted with the task of bringing together and holding together multicultural societies. One of the classic challenges of political organizations is the decision regarding territorial or divisional power. There are three ways to organize power among national, state, and local governments: unitary, confederal, and federal.

Unitary government concentrates almost all government power into a single national government; a confederal system disperses government power to regional or local governments. The federal system, also known as federalism, divides power between national and state governments. Under federalism, each level of government is independent and has its own powers and responsibilities. Often it is not clear whether a state or national government has jurisdiction on a particular matter because at times the national and state governments alternate between cooperating and competing with each other.

Under the unitary systems are those in which sovereignty, decision-making authority, and revenue raising powers are solely vested in a single central government. Sub-national units may exist in unitary systems of government, but they can be revoked by the central government. A majority of countries around the world have unitary systems of government. For example, France, Japan, and China have unitary governments, but Great Britain is an example of a unitary state that has devolved its limited powers to a series of regional assemblies, such as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, three countries that exist without being coalesced into a federation.

The advantages of a unitary system of government are clarity in the lines of accountability, coordination of control by a primarily legislature and executive, and ability to ensure equality in treatment of all parts of the country through a unitary applied form of laws. Under the federal system of government the areas, self-rule with shared rule and are characterized by a strong central government coexisting with sub-national units that enjoy their own spheres of jurisdiction and resource bases. Sovereignty shared among levels of government and formal distribution of powers are defined constitutionally. This kind of system tends to emerge in large or populous countries such as the United States, India, Canada, Brazil, Germany, and Australia.

Under the confederal systems the central government coexists alongside of sub-national units, but in this model the provincial, regional, or state governments are significantly stronger than the national authority. In this case the central government depends on the sub-central units for resources and authority, and under the confederate system of government sub-central entities participate voluntarily and can easily exit the partnership as well. The decision depends on the unanimous decision of regional units. So the central government has the purpose of limited policies, primarily defense and foreign policy as was the case of the United States under the Articles of Confederation 1781-1789, the Confederate States of America 1861-1865, the former USSR, and the European Union. Weak central authority cannot enforce national laws.

Federalism is traditionally considered to be a useful way of limiting governmental power. Therefore, it has been considered a solution to the organization of power in order to secure good governance. However, at the same time, it has also been criticized as detracting from efficiency and equality. Federalism has been used in Northern Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region to end the violent conflict with the Iraqi Central government to ensure political cooperation between the Kurds and the Arabs. Federalism has been used as a tool to end the conflict in Bosnia and some other countries as well. The success of federalism depends on how the power sharing is designed, and on whether major parties agree on the nature of the power sharing. The Philippine state with its regions’ relation to the state and to each other is a case in point.


Dr. Aland Mizell is President of the MCI and a regular contributor to The Kurdistan Tribune, and Mindanao Times. You may email the author

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