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Federalism: Its characteristics

Updated on July 28, 2017
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Varsha is an enthusiastic writer who loves to share informative content. She loves to write about political and social issues.

Introduction to Federalism

Federalism is derived from the Latin word foedus meaning compact. The term federalism is generally used to mean an association of states. But every kind of association of states cannot be called a federation. It is a form of government in which power is divided between a central authority and various constituents units of the country. Ex-USA, Canada, India, etc.

According to DICEY, "Federalism means the distribution of the force of the state among a number of coordinate bodies each originating in and controlled by the constitution."

Federalism may be defined as a "political organization in which the activities of government are divided between regional governments and a central government in such a way that each kind of government has some activities on which it makes final decisions." Viewed in this way federalism may have a minimum as well as maximum ranges of phenomena.


A federal system seeks to reconcile national unity with regional identity. To reconcile national unity with the state independence under a common constitution, a well-developed federation exhibits a number of important characteristics.

1}SUPREMACY OF THE CONSTITUTION-A federal state owes its origin to a constitution which is in fact, a character of rights and duties of the federal and state authorities. The powers belonging either to the general government or to the individual states are derived from the constitution. This is what is commonly known as the doctrine of the supremacy of the constitution. It is an important characteristic of the federation that the provisions of the constitution control every authority existing under the constitution. According to Dicey, three consequences flow from the doctrine of the supremacy of the constitution:

i)The constitution must be a written constitution-As a federal state is born of an agreement among the federating units, it is necessary that to remove misunderstandings and disagreements the terms and conditions which have been agreed to, are put in black and white.

ii)The constitution must be a 'rigid' or 'inexpensive' constitution-It implies that the power of amending the constitution should be beyond the competence of either federal or state legislatures. None of the federating units, acting on its own, should be allowed to alter the provisions of the constitution. Such rigidity is quite natural in a federation as the parties to it would like to prevent further encroachments upon their rights. The aim of federalism is an almost permanent division of powers between co-ordinate authorities. Hence, to vest supreme legislative power in any ordinary legislature acting under the constitution would be inconsistent with the purpose of federalism.

iii)Every legislature in a federation is subordinate to and controlled by the constitution-The validity or unconstitutionality of its law depends upon whether these follow or violate the authority conferred upon it by the constitution. Thus, in relation to the constitution, the legislatures in a federation are subordinate law-making bodies.

2}DISTRIBUTION OF POWERS BETWEEN CENTRE AND STATE-The second essential characteristic of federalism is the distribution of powers between the general government and the state governments and more important the existence of a degree of guaranteed autonomy for geographically distributed governments operating directly on the citizen. The matters of general importance are generally placed under the control of the national government while those that are primarily of local or regional importance remain in the hands of the separate states. The details of the division of powers vary under different federal constitutions, yet the characteristic is everywhere present.

3}SUPREMACY OF THE JUDICIARY-It is essential that there should be in a federation some institution with power to decide disputes which may arise between the general government and the state governments. Since a division of powers is an essential part of federalism, it is quite natural that there will be disputes about the terms of the division of the powers. In most of the federal systems, this problem is solved by the creation of a supreme court that acts as the balance wheel. Its function is to see that the rights and duties of the general and regional governments keep to the schedule laid down in the constitution. Thus in all matters affecting the constitution, the supreme court acts as the final arbiter.


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    • varsha bang profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from India


    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      6 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent informational Hub, Varsha. Federalism is a difficult concept for many leaders to grasp. The United States is still arguing over what the balance of powers should be between the states and the national government. This battle never ends but the national government holds everything together.


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