Asymmetric federation

Asymmetric federalism or asymmetrical federalism is found in a federation or confederation in which different constituent states possess different powers: one or more of the states has considerably more autonomy than the other substates, although they have the same constitutional status. The division of powers between substates is not symmetric. This is in contrast to symmetric federalism, where no distinction is made between constituent states. As a result, it is frequently proposed as a solution to the dissatisfactions that arise when one or two constituent units feel significantly different needs from the others, as the result of an ethnic, linguistic or cultural difference.

An asymmetric federation is similar to a federacy where one of the substates enjoys considerably more independence than the others. The difference between an asymmetric federation and federacy is indistinct; a federacy is essentially an extreme case of an asymmetric federation, either due to large differences in the level of autonomy, or the rigidity of the constitutional arrangements. An asymmetric federation however has to have a federal constitution and all states in federation have the same formal status ("state"), while in a federacy independent substate has a different status ("autonomous region").


Asymmetrical federalism can be divided into two types of agreements or arrangements. The first type resolves differences in legislative powers, representation in central institutions, and rights and obligations that are set in the constitution. This type of asymmetry can be called de jure asymmetry (Brown 2). The second type reflects agreements which come out of national policy, opting out, and (depending on one’s definition of the term) bilateral and ad hoc deals with specific provinces, none of which are entrenched in the constitution. This type of asymmetry is known as de facto asymmetry. The Canadian federation uses a combination of these, which make up its asymmetrical character.

National examples


The Constitution of Canada is broadly symmetric but contains certain specific sections that apply only to certain provinces. In practice, a degree of asymmetry is created as a result of the evolution of the Canadian federal experiment, individual federal-provincial agreements, and judicial interpretation. Asymmetrical federalism has been much discussed as a formula for stability in Canada, meeting the aspirations of French-speaking Quebec for control over its cultural and social life without removing it from the national federation, where it coexists with nine largely English-speaking provinces.

For example, tax collection is often a federal responsibility but in Quebec both the federal and Quebec governments retain the ability to collect both corporate, personal and sales taxes. In some other provinces, provincial governments collect only sales or corporate taxes.

A recent example of asymmetry in the Canadian federation can be found in the terms of the September 2004 federal-provincial-territorial agreement on health care and the financing thereof.[1] The Government of Quebec supported the broader agreement but insisted on a separate communiqué in which it was specified, among other things, that Quebec will apply its own wait time reduction plan in accordance with the objectives, standards and criteria established by the relevant Quebec authorities; that the Government of Quebec will report to Quebecers on progress in achieving its objectives, and will use comparable indicators, mutually agreed to with other governments; and that funding made available by the Government of Canada will be used by the Government of Quebec to implement its own plan for renewing Quebec's health system.[2]

For example, Quebec operates its own pension plan, while the other nine provinces are covered by the federal/provincial Canada Pension Plan. Quebec has extensive authority over employment and immigration issues within its borders, matters that are handled by the federal government in all the other provinces.

Such an arrangement has led to criticism in the English-speaking provinces, where there is fear that Quebec is enjoying favouritism in the federal system. It, however, provides a useful lever for those who want to decentralize the structure as a whole, transferring more powers from the centre to the provinces overall, a trend that dominated Canadian politics for decades.


The Government of India (referred to as the Union Government or Central Government) was established by the Constitution of India, and is the governing authority of a federal union of 28 states and 7 union territories.

The governance of India is based on a tiered system, wherein the Constitution of India appropriates the subjects on which each tier of government has executive powers. The Constitution uses the Seventh Schedule to delimit the subjects under three categories, namely the Union list, the State list and the Concurrent list.

A distinguishing aspect of Indian federalism is that it is asymmetric.[3] Article 370 makes special provisions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir as per its Instrument of Accession. Article 371 makes special provisions for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Goa, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Sikkim as per their accession or statehood deals.

Although the Constitution did not envisage it, India is now a multilingual federation.[4] India has a multi-party system with political allegiances frequently based on linguistic, regional and caste identities,[5] necessitating coalition politics, especially at the Union level.


The relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and other states of the Iraq federation can be characterized as asymmetric federalism. The political and cultural distinctiveness of Iraqi Kurdistan is lawfully recognized in Article 5 of the Iraqi Constitution. Iraqi Kurdistan is the sole federative region in Iraq, which enjoyed its separative political entity as de facto state from 1991 to 2003, and voluntarily rejoined a federal democratic Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is the sole region in Iraq that enjoys security and political and economic development as of 2007.


Malaysia is a federation of 13 states formed in 1963 by the merger of the independent Federation of Malaya and the formerly British colonies of Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak.

Under the terms of the federation, Sabah and Sarawak are granted significant autonomy in excess of that exercised by the 11 Malayan states, most notably the control over immigration to these two states.

Singapore was a part of Malaysia until 1965. During its time as a state of Malaysia, Singapore enjoyed autonomy in setting labour and education policies.


The Russian Federation consists of 83 federal subjects, all equal in federal matters but enjoying six more or less different levels of autonomy.

United States

As far as the fifty proper states are concerned, the United States is a symmetric federation, where every state has the same powers. However, the U.S. has a number of insular areas directly under the control of the federal government, with various degrees of autonomy. The District of Columbia is not an insular area but is directly controlled by the federal government, with limited autonomy. The statute that admitted Texas to the Union reserved a right for the State's legislature to subsequently divide Texas into as many as five new States, but it is not clear whether Congress has bound itself in advance by this Act to admit all or indeed any of these new States.

Other countries

Asymmetrical federalism is also seen in such federal systems as Belgium and Switzerland, where two or more languages are official and well established. It is strikingly absent in the United States, where the Constitution and long practice make the states, no matter how different in size or culture, precisely equal in standing and powers.

There is a parallel debate in the development of regional institutions, such as the European Union, over whether all member states should be treated identically. At present, various countries have opt-outs from specific aspects of EU law. Some see this as a model for the future development of the EU, as a way of respecting different national traditions, whilst others object, arguing that it is inconsistent with the original ideals of European integration.

Asymmetrical federalism has been suggested as an important part of any solution for the conflict in Sri Lanka, where tension between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils has led to periods of civil war separated by periods of general mistrust.

Unitary states

Although they are not properly federations, many unitary states with devolved self-governing regions have a structure of government that resembles that found in an asymmetric federation.


In Indonesia, although the form of state is Unitary, four regions were given the special status of autonomy (keistimewaan) as provinces. They were namely Aceh, Jakarta, Jogjakarta, and West Papua. These regions were given special statuses based on the constitutional laws of special autonomy (Undang-Undang Keistimewaan Daerah) with each having their own special degree of special autonomy:

Aceh exercises the Sharia law bond with the Aceh traditional culture system of government instead of using the Unitary System the others Provinces had. Besides that, Aceh is also granted the rights over the participation of regional parties in their province unlike other provinces.

Jakarta is the capital city and, unlike other cities in Indonesia, which were granted a second-tier of country subdivision or the same degree as a regency, exercises the autonomous power the same as a first-tier level of country subdivision does.

Jogjakarta was granted special status over the exercise and involvement of the royal family of Keraton Jogjakarta and Kadipaten Pakualaman, where the Sultan of Jogjakarta rules the province in charge, taking the place the equal as a governor in other provinces. Acting as his deputy is the Adipati of Pakualam. The two rule as the executive leaders of Jogjakarta.

Papua/Irian Jaya is granted a special status over the exercise of legislative power. Papua has a separate legislative council, the MRP (Majelis Rakyat Papua/Papuan People's Assembly), which exercises legislative power over Papua inside the People's Consultative Assembly, the Legislative Council of Indonesia.


In Italy, five regions (namely Sardinia, Sicily, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Aosta Valley and Friuli-Venezia Giulia) have been granted special status of autonomy. Their statutes are constitutional laws approved by the Italian Parliament, granting them relatively broad powers in relation to legislation and administration, but also significant financial autonomy. They keep between 60% (Friuli-Venezia Giulia) and 100% (Sicily) of all taxes and decide how to spend the revenues. These regions became autonomous in order to take into account that they host linguistic minorities (German-speaking in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, French-speaking in Aosta Valley, Slovenians in Friuli-Venezia Giulia) or are geographically isolated (the two islands, but also Friuli-Venezia Giulia).


In Spain, which is either called an "imperfect federation"[6] or a "federation in all but its name",[7] the central government has granted different levels of autonomy to its substates, considerably more to the autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Basque Country Andalusia, Navarre and Galicia and considerably less to the others, out of respect for nationalist sentiment and rights these regions have enjoyed historically.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, England has no self-government and is ruled directly by the British Parliament, but Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have varying degrees of autonomy. However, many people believe that that asymmetrical devolution of powers (most notably to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly) is unfair, which causes the ongoing West Lothian question.


  • here
  • Brown, Douglas. “Who’s Afraid of Asymmetrical Federalism? A Summary Discussion.” 2005 Special Series on Asymmetric Federalism. Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, Queens University. 2005

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