This topic is once again heavily focused on vocabulary, specifically the terms federal and unitary.
Federal System—A division of power between two entities. Now let's take the the United States 🇺🇸as an example. It happens to be divided between the federal, state, and local governments, but it doesn't always have to be divided this way, so be sure if you were asked about federal systems you focus on division of power. Examples: Mexico 🇲🇽, Russia 🇷🇺, Nigeria 🇳🇬
Mexico, Russia, and Nigeria
In all three countries above the central governments are the most powerful of the governments, even though the state or local governments do have some power and autonomy, but we can go through that more when we look at each course country individually.
Mexico 🇲🇽 is divided between a strong central government and 32 state governments. The power division is guaranteed by the Constitution, certain guarantees of power to the states. An example would be that Mexican states can raise taxes locally. The central government is in control of oil, which has a history of relying on oil as their primary economic product. One policy that is pointed out by the College Board as an example of power provided to the states is abortion. Two (2) states have chosen to allow abortion up to 12 weeks, while the other 30 states do not allow for abortions. This is an example of policy that's different from state to state.
Nigeria 🇳🇬 is divided between a strong central government and 36 state governments. The power, much like Mexico is divided between a strong central government and the states and guaranteed by the Constitution. One example of policy diversity would be the way that legal systems are implemented in Nigeria. In the Northern States of Nigeria, 9 states implement Sharia law in their civil and criminal law, while 3 states partially implement Sharia law. In the Southern states of Nigeria, Sharia law is not part of the legal system. Once again, this illustrates that the states do have some policy making freedom. However, like Mexico there is a strong central government because of the history of military rule and authoritarianism.
Russia 🇷🇺 is much more complicated system of federalism to understand than Mexico or Nigeria. In Russia the Constitution guarantees a separation of power between the central government and regions. The regions are bound to the Russian Federation by a treaty, but not all regions signed the treaty. In the 1990s as Russia was transitioning from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation. Under Yeltsin the strength of the central government weekend and many of the regions (often referred to as republics) ruled themselves independently. However, Putin has taken numerous steps to diminish regional autonomy. Let us look at several ways this has been done.
Might. Putin used the Russian military to bomb Chechnya to enforce its position as part of the Russian Federation, as they had not signed the treaty joining the Federation.
Laws. Putin passed ensured a law was passed to remove governors in the Republics who do not follow the Russian Constitution in creating local law.
Super-Districts. In 2020 seven federal districts were created and all republics were placed into the districts. In addition federal districts are headed by, yep you guessed it, a presidential nominee.
It is clear that in the authoritarian regime in Russia, there is little autonomy for the non-central governments, where in the emerging democracies of Mexico and Nigeria as they move further away from their authoritarian roots, there is more independence in the state governments.
Unitary System—A central government which is supreme. Examples: China 🇨🇳, Iran 🇮🇷, the UK 🇬🇧
A lot of times students think this form of system is more authoritarian than a federalist system, but this is not necessarily the case. The Russian Federation is extremely authoritarian, because it is an authoritarian regime. However, the unitary system in the UK allows for devolution and local power because it is a democratic regime.
China, Iran, and the UK
China 🇨🇳 The power lies with the central government, and more specifically with the Communist Party. However, there is an issue in China which gives local authorities some power, and that is the sheer size of China. With all power centralized in one location it is almost impossible for the Central government to oversee the expansive land and population. There is one more reason for some autonomy among local governments, the Chinese government has moved away from a command economy toward a market economy, and that means more western influence and less control over policy. Autonomy in China isn't the ability to make laws, but rather the ability to ignore central government policy, set their own tax rates or building projects without government approval.
Iran 🇮🇷 The power lies with the central government, and more specifically the Supreme Leader. There is real devolution of power to speak of!
UK 🇬🇧 There is no written Constitution so there are no guarantees to power for any government other than the central government. However, through a process called devolution in which power has been granted to regional governments through national legislative policy making. In recent years the UK has allowed regional governments the ability to make decisions regarding policy like education.