Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have brought to the forefront the fragility of government institutions and have questioned the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes in a number of developing nations. The right form of governance for the right society has never been easy to identify. A lot of times, societies have adopted forms of governance that were imposed to them by past colonial masters or short sighted revolutionary uprisings.
However, the right system of governance is needed not only in order to safeguard civil liberties and the peoples hard fought rights, but also to promote much needed economic growth and development for the region. After all, it was persistent unemployment and rising food prices which caused people throughout the Arab world to take to the streets. Economic development should be just as important as democratic values and civil liberties.
The people of the ‘Arab Spring’ need a vision for the future, complete with a new form of governance for each nation in transition. The instability and unpredictability of the street revolution needs a political as well as an economic vision of what life could look like after the dictators are toppled. There is only one system of governance, which both safeguards pluralism, guarantees democracy, protects minority rights, promotes commerce and facilitates a market economy, and that is Federalism. Federalism, with its separation of powers, checks and balances, devolution of powers and respect for minority rights, could provide an excellent framework for the people on the street to aspire and strive.
Political Benefits from Federalism
As a system of governance, federalism dispenses political power from the central level to the lower levels in a beneficial way to a society, because it brings the government closer to the people, enhances participation, fosters a more egalitarian society, promotes more effective community involvement, and increases solidarity by empowering ordinary people to make decisions for their communities.
However, most developing nations fall in the trap of believing that the accumulation of power at the center is required to stabilize the system, provide greater security in their territory, integrate markets for more rapid growth, or to merge the political system to become more unified. Although undoubtedly there is need for a hierarchy and a bureaucracy to provide order to a society and fortify national interests, the difficulty for most developing nations has been that of balancing ‘order and efficiency’ with enhanced participation and autonomy in lower levels of government.
When power and authority are within the prerogatives of local government, the people become motivated to share governing concerns and responsibilities. The more a state becomes centralized, the more controlling and even authoritarian it becomes since power aggregates into the hands of a few. Nowhere is this more obvious than in North Africa and the Middle East. Not only centralization in the name of efficiency or expediency has become an excuse for abuse, but also there is a proliferation of favoritism of certain ethnic/religious groups over others.
Market Promoting Federalism
In the context of developing countries, decentralization of political power is not enough unless it yields some economic benefits. When trade with the outside world is not possible or profitable, developing countries need economic growth to come from within. Therefore, what Arab nations need the most is a system of governance that encourages and promotes economic and commercial activity at the local level.
This is where ‘market promoting federalism’ (MPF) comes into play. Decentralized control over the economy by sub-national governments within the common market prevents the central government from interfering with markets. Decentralization under MPF allows for diversity of policy choices and experimentation by local governments, thus creating a feedback to the central government and other local governments.
The central feature of MPF is that it imposes limits on the exercise of authority by all levels of government. Contrary to a system with a centralized unitary government, MPF limits the central government directly by placing particular areas of public policy beyond that government’s reach. Furthermore, the lower governments are also limited, not only by the central governments supervision of the common market, but also by the competition they face from each other. Nowhere is this more clear than in the U.S. and China, where states and provinces have been competing with each other and growing the national economy in the process.
Constitutional Reform for the ‘Arab Spring’
When federalism at the national level is applied properly it leads to multiple centres of power (and thus multiple leaders), not just one strongman (a president or a prime-minister with all the power). What could be more appropriate for the people of North Africa and the Middle East, which have suffered so much at the hands of a few dictators, than to adopt a political system that does not deify one person or one family? The U.S. federal system of governance provides an excellent starting point for any discussion about constitutional reform in the region.
The most fundamental tenet of the U.S. federal system of governance is the complete institutional separation of powers at the national level, while at the same time every decision at the national level requires the consent of all the branches of government. Therefore, Legislative (Congress), Executive (President) and Judiciary (Supreme Court) branches are completely separate, but laws passed by the legislature need the approval of the President), and are subject to review by the Courts.
Second, the legislative process is performed by a bicameral legislature, where one chamber represents the people (House of Representatives) while the other (Senate) represents the sub-national units (States), and both chambers are equal in power and responsibility. Furthermore, by staggering the terms of legislators (2 years for House members, 6 years for Senate members) and staggering the election of Senators (one-third up for re-election every two years), the legislature is being renewed every two years while being insulated from dramatic swings in popular opinion.
Third, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials, Ambassadors, and Judges have to be considered and approved by the legislature. This oversight role of Congress continues after Cabinet members are appointed, when they are required by law to appear in front of select legislative committees and report on their departments activities, answer questions, and make available to legislators any and all information’s that legislators deem relevant.
Finally, the independence of the judiciary branch is guaranteed through life-time appointments. Although judges are selected by the President and approved by the legislature, they are appointed for life, and their removal is exceptional and very hard to achieve. Furthermore, judges have the power to review the constitutionality of laws, and through the years have many times struck down laws which were not consistent with the letter or the spirit of the Constitution.
Add to these fundamental elements of the U.S. system, term limits for politician, clear provisions for amending the constitution and removing the President, an independent Electoral Commission, and an independent and competent Office for the protection of Human Rights, and you have a recipe for political stability and economic success.
The Right Form of Governance
The history of modern economic development is full of successes and failures. The failures seem to be more than the successes; from the many African nations that have never truly improved their condition since independence 60 years ago, to the Middle East, rich with oil but stagnant economically and democratically. Now, the nations of the Arab world are going through some major changes to their regimes and future systems of governance. Identifying the right form of governance for the right society has never been easy, but federalism could be the most appropriate of all possible choices for the nations of the ‘Arab Spring’!
During the 19th century, the exportation of U.S.-style federalism was deemed detrimental to the political development of Latin America nations. I believe the times have change, and U.S.-style federalism could serve as a future system of governance for the ‘Arab Spring’ nations. Furthermore, by advocating for constitutional reforms that promote federalism and good governance, and by rewording those nations that truly adopt such changes, the U.S. can restore its role in the world stage as a champion of democratic principles.