INTERVIEW with Prof Ronald L Watts

'Unitary systems more prone to secession'


Prof Ronald L Watts is an internationally acclaimed scholar who has spent his life studying federal systems all over the world. There are many important things that Nepal, particularly at this stage, could learn from his rich experience of working in the shaping of 22 out of the 25 federations around the globe. Currently, a professor emeritus of political studies at Queen's University, Canada, he was also a fulltime advisor to the Canadian government on constitutional affairs.


Prof Watts, who was here last week at the invitation of the UNDP, spent a few minutes before his departure with Puran P Bista and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post, talking over issues such as the prospects and challenges for a unitary country going federal vis-à-vis the experiences of different countries that went through similar transitions.



Q: You have come to Nepal for a certain purpose. What is your impression?


Prof Watts: My impression is that this is a very important time for Nepal right now with the elections going forward to the Constituent Assembly (CA). And my role was with the workshop that the UNDP organized to bring some leading academics and political people together to talk about what sorts of issues will need to be dealt with by the CA in creating a federal system.


I have spent my life studying federal systems for 50 years and comparing federal systems all over the world. There are 25 federal systems in the world; I've visited 22 of them. My purpose here was not to tell the Nepali people what to do but to make available to them information on what has been done elsewhere from the experience of using federalism in 25 different countries all over the world. What things have succeeded and what things have not succeeded so that you can learn from success and from failure. So that has been my role.


Q: There have been debates regarding federalization of any country. Some countries that have opted for a federal system have failed while some have succeeded. What are the factors that determine failure and success?


Prof Watts: By and large, countries vary in terms of their internal diversity. Some countries are relatively homogeneous in terms of language, religion and so on. Japan, for instance, is a relatively homogeneous country. So there is less difference amongst groups within the country. But other countries, like my own Canada, either because they are very large or because there have many different groups inside them have found it desirable to give those different groups some measure of self-governance within the unity.


There are 25 federations in the world today representing 40 percent of the world's population. At the beginning of the 21st century, this is a remarkably popular form of government.


But have all these countries successfully practiced a federal system of governance? Some federations, like the Ethiopian federation, have not sustained.


One of the things I would have to cite is that many federations have succeeded, some have failed. Therefore, it's important to look why some federations have succeeded and why some have failed.


The first thing is that federalism can provide a democratically successful combination of unity and diversity. My evidence for that is four of the longest existing constitutional systems of the world today are federations – the United States, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada. Each of these has been under the same constitution for more than 100 years. The United States, more than 200 years.


In addition, if you look at the UN Human Development Index which tries to measure countries according to their economic prosperity, respect for rights, quality of the lives of their citizens, it ranks a total of 175 countries. Out of the top 20, eight are federations. So federation can be successful.


On the other hand, I'd argue that federalism is not a panacea. Adopting a federal system does not automatically create success. You have to create conditions. There are a great variety of federal forms or structures. So you have to have an appropriate structure of your own.


So my first point is federalism can be successful and has been, especially in many countries that are multiethnic like Switzerland, with many different languages and religions, like Canada with French and English, India with many different religious groups, Nigeria and so on. But my second point is federalism is not a panacea. In certain places it has failed. You can identify the reasons for the failures. And I think the lessons from these failures are twofold.


One is that even more important than the structure is the existence of a political culture and public attitudes that support federalism. A federal system is based on the constitutional definition of federal powers and regional unit powers. And unlike in a unitary government where the central government decides, in a federation the constitution sets out the powers.


Therefore, respect for the law is crucial. If there is no respect for the law, if people pay no attention to what the constitution says, federalism will not work. And federalism requires on the part of all groups to trust each other, to compromise, to recognize and tolerate the existence of different identities within different groups. So, I always argue that a fundamental requirement for any federal system to work is respect for the rule of law, compromise, tolerance and so on.


Secondly, I'd argue that the structure has to recognize the two basic elements of shared rule and regional self-rule, because a federation involves both elements. A federation is not just regional self-rule, which is an important part, because it lets different people to run their own affairs on matters that affect them; but equally important is the element of shared rule in areas in which they are involved. If you don't have shared rule, they will fall apart. So, I'd emphasize that the political and constitutional structure must have an element of shared rule which brings the people together inclusively. You have genuinely shared power at the center, but you have autonomous self-rule in the units. In this regard, all the different groups can feel that they have an opportunity to run their own affairs but that they also participate in central government. Therefore, I say those two elements are crucial.


Now where it has failed it is because of lack of one of those elements – either a failure to trust each other or reach a compromise. Federalism will not work if groups are intransigent and say, "We must have our own way; we cannot compromise at all."


Q: If you look at Nepal's case, it is moving from a unitary to a federal system. But if we look at successful federations like Switzerland and America, they moved from being separate countries to a federal system. Don't you think that Nepal will face problems or that it will not work in this country? Can you cite any example of a country that moved from a unitary system to a federal system?


Prof Watts: There are many countries that started as a unitary system and became a federation. For instance, my country Canada was a unitary system in 1840. It did not work because of the different groups in the country, and so in 1867, we divided what was a unitary Canada into Ontario, which is English-speaking, and Quebec, which is French-speaking. So there is a clear case of devolution to form a federation. But there are other examples as well. Spain is an example, Belgium is an example. There are many examples of unitary countries that have moved into federalism.


Q: In Nepal's context, there is no clear demarcation to federalize the country on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity, etc. Everything is mixed up. Do you think it is possible to federalize such a heterogeneous country?


Prof Watts: Yes. I think it is possible. For instance, they had a great mixture in South Africa, which also is one example that devolved from a unitary to a federal system. They established a constitutional commission which took various things into account – the demography, geography, economic development and a variety of factors into account in defining nine new provinces when they became federations after the end of apartheid. In the case of Nepal, I can't tell what the units should be. That's what Nepalis should decide.


Q: Do you think that the units which will be federalized will be able to sustain themselves without adequate economic activities?


Prof Watts: They will need to be given powers to run their own affairs. It will take time to build the capacity. You cannot switch from a unitary to a federal system in 24 hours. Belgium is a classic example. It went through four different states before it became a federation. Spain has been going through stages.


I am sure that Nepal needs to think in terms of the stages by which it builds the capacity of the units. I can't tell you what the units should be, but I can tell you about other countries that had to define units. And in the process of defining units, when you proceed by devolution, they have taken into account not just ethnicity, language and religion, but also economic development, sustainability, geographic outline, communication and transportation system and all that.


The Constituent Assembly will need to set up a committee or a commission which will study all these things. Creating a federal state is never a simple task. It is always complicated.


Q: You said there are several models of federalism practiced all over the world. What sort of model do you think will go well with heterogeneous countries like Nepal?


Prof Watts: The first thing I never emphasize is that … you cannot just look at models, say, like at a shop, and pick up one model because every country has its own unique blend of particular circumstances and conditions. But what you can do is look at other federations and see what arrangements have worked there and what arrangements have not worked.


For instance, let me give you an illustration of the sorts of things that will be able to be sorted out. Apart from designing the units themselves – taking into account not just ethnicity, but economic development and all sorts of things, the powers of the federal government and the constituencies – Malaysia has a relatively centralized governance. If you take the combined expenditure of the federal and state governments of Malaysia, the central government takes 83 percent of that expenditure and only 17 percent is performed by the states.


On the other hand, if you look at Switzerland, which is at the other extreme, the federal government only does 32 percent of the combined expenditure, 68 percent is done by the units, the cantons. Canada is similar to Switzerland in that way, and different federations all fall in between.


So one of the things you need to decide is how much power goes and in what specific areas to the federal government and what will be the specific powers that will go to the units. When you talk about the units, you need to decide what should be the number and relative size of the units. The Russian federation now has 86 units. The United States 50; Switzerland, with a population of only 7 million, smaller than Nepal, has 26 units, cantons; India has 27.


On the other hand, Belgium has only six. So, one of the things you need to decide is should you have many like in Switzerland, 26 units, or should you just have a few units? My advice is do not make them too few, because where there are too few they have usually turned out to be too difficult because they become too competitive with each other. See the federations that have collapsed – Pakistan, East and West Pakistan; Czechoslovakia, two units; Serbia Montenegro, two units. Federations of two, three or four units usually tend to be unstable. So you want to make at least six units. But you could be anywhere from 6 to 26. It gives you an enormous range.


Again, in terms of the central institutions, the institutions of shared rule, you could have a presidential or a separation of powers system, which you have in most of the Latin American federations like Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and of course the United States. Or you can have a parliamentary system combined with a federal system, such as in Canada, Australia or most of the European federations like Spain, Germany and so on.


Nearly all federations have a second chamber to represent the diversity in a country. The first chamber is based on the population, but that would leave the larger units predominant. So most federations have either equal representation or weighted representation in the second chamber. But the powers of the second chamber and the method of appointment – whether the states are represented equally and what their powers are – vary from federation to federation. Most federations have a judicial court system to umpire disputes between governments and adjudicate between them. But some federations have a supreme court, which hears appeals on all laws. Others have a specialized constitutional court – Germany, Belgium and Spain are the examples.


The constitutional amendment procedure requires that both levels of government be involved in amending the constitution. But in some federations, it is done by the legislatures, the regional units and the federal parliament. In others, it is done by a referendum.


Because of overlapping between governments, if is impossible to divide central and regional functions in watertight compartments. Then it is necessary to design instruments for cooperation between governments. And the instruments, the particular mechanisms vary from federation to federation. What I am trying to say is that there is an enormous range of questions and issues.


Q: Heterogeneous countries that have gone federal have not been able to succeed in comparison to those which are homogeneous and federalized. What do you say?


Prof Watts: One of the lessons from looking at other federations is that where you have a bipolar population, where you have two units, that turns out to be unstable.


But some of the other multiethnic countries have been fairly successful. Remember that countries like Canada, Switzerland and the United Sates are now very prosperous. But don't forget that when they first became federations, they were not so prosperous. If you look at my country or the United States, when they first became federations, they were quite backward countries. There were no railways in Canada when Canada became a federation. It was an underdeveloped country. But over a century and a half, it is developed and now it is prosperous. But it is important to say that it is not a federation because of which it is prosperous, but being a federation enabled it to become prosperous.


I don't say that there are no problems. Every federation has its own problems. But the crucial thing is that those problems are less than what they would be in a unitary system. Remember that Canada adopted a federal system because there were problems with the unitary system. So the point I am getting at is don't look at federalism in terms of only prosperity now. But there are problems in Canada, the United States and India. Federalism will not eliminate problems, but it may make the problems less than they would have been otherwise.


In fact, there have been more secessions in unitary systems than in federal systems because, in federal systems, the groups have an opportunity to have some say in their own affairs. To cope with their problems, countries have adopted federalism. Nepal will not eliminate problems, but you may have fewer problems than you could have otherwise.


What about the secession of Kosovo? It is a problem of unitary Serbia. The separation of Kosovo is because the unitary structure could not cope with the different views and feelings of the people in Kosovo.


But it is very dangerous and over expecting to think that by simply adopting a federal system you solve all problems. Federalism is not a panacea as I said. The task of federalism is not to eliminate problems, but you try to make it possible to manage them.


Let me give you one illustration. I'd recently been to Sri Lanka they were talking about whether a federal system was appropriate for Sri Lanka. Some said, "Well, you know there were problems even in federal Canada, the separatism movement in Quebec."


I said yes, that is true. We'd had a separatist movement. But now let's compare Sri Lanka and Canada. How many people do you think have been killed in Canada over 140 years of its existence because of the Quebec separatism? Do you know how many?


Q: Sorry, we don't know. How many?


Prof Watts: One person. And tell me in unitary Sri Lanka, how many people have been killed because of Tamil separatism? 70,000. That tells something about the way different systems can operate.

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