There are several myths and inaccurate assumptions made by various parties about power sharing in a country like Sri Lanka.
By Madhuri Ranasinghe
In Sri Lanka, there is a prevalent myth that federal power-sharing systems are unsuitable for smaller countries. This assumption is based on the belief that a smaller nation, unlike larger states such as India or the USA, lacks the resources and capacity to adopt federal concepts. However, such misconceptions require serious reconsideration. This first in a series of articles, in which I will address the concept of power-sharing and expose some of the myths regarding this topic. In this article, we will explore various examples from around the world that challenge the myth that small states like Sri Lanka do not adopt federal systems. We will look at how federal power-sharing can be successful even in smaller countries like Sri Lanka.
Story of St Kitts and Nevis
The history and development of federalism in St. Kitts and Nevis reveal a complex relationship between the two constituent units—St. Kitts and Nevis. The islands were historically colonized by the British, and there has been a history of regional cooperation and unity in the Eastern Caribbean. Several attempts at federation were made with other islands in the area, culminating in the Federation of the West Indies in 1958.
However, the Federation of the West Indies faced challenges and disagreements, leading to Jamaica’s departure from the federation. Eventually, the Federation of the West Indies was dissolved in 1962, leaving smaller island states like St. Kitts and Nevis to seek their own paths towards independence.
In 1983, St. Kitts and Nevis achieved independence, and a federal system was established. The constitution of St. Kitts and Nevis established two constituent units—the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. However, the federal system in St. Kitts and Nevis is asymmetrical, with only Nevis being endowed with its own government and jurisdiction. Nevis has its own government, the Nevis Island Administration, and has jurisdiction over specific areas within the island.
On the other hand, St. Kitts does not have a government representing solely the interests of the island. The division of power between the federal government and Nevis favours Nevis in terms of jurisdiction. Nevis has exclusive authority over certain matters, while the federal government retains jurisdiction over external affairs and defence.
The relationship between St. Kitts and Nevis has been marked by the ongoing threat of secession, with Nevis seeking greater autonomy. In 1998, a referendum on secession was held in Nevis, with a majority in favour, but falling short of the required two-thirds majority. The federal government established commissions and committees to address this issue and work towards greater cooperation.
In recent years, there have been efforts to improve the working relationship between the Nevis Island Administration and the national government. St. Kitts and Nevis have also collaborated with other islands in the Caribbean, recognizing the need for larger political and economic units in the face of global economic pressures.
The economy of St. Kitts and Nevis has historically relied on the cultivation of sugar, but the sugar industry faces challenges, and the country is exploring other sectors like finance, tourism, and information technology to foster economic growth.
The federal power-sharing arrangement in St. Kitts and Nevis reflects the unique dynamics of the two constituent units—St. Kitts and Nevis. While history has been marked by challenges and the threat of secession, efforts towards greater cooperation and collaboration with other Caribbean islands indicate the importance of regional unity and cooperation in a globalized economy. The success of St. Kitts and Nevis as a federation will depend on its ability to address economic challenges and foster a harmonious relationship between the two constituent units.
Tailored Governance and Local Autonomy
One of the primary benefits of federal power-sharing is its ability to offer tailored governance solutions to regions with unique needs and identities. In smaller countries, where regional diversity might not be as pronounced as in larger nations, a federal system can still be effective in empowering local authorities to address specific challenges. By decentralizing power, smaller countries can ensure that decisions are made with a better understanding of local contexts and priorities.
Switzerland, with its relatively smaller size compared to many other countries, stands as a prime example of successful federalism. The Swiss federal system allows cantons to exercise considerable autonomy in areas such as education, healthcare, and taxation, ensuring that regional needs are met while maintaining national cohesion.
Enhanced Efficiency and Accountability
Critics of federal power-sharing often argue that smaller countries would struggle to manage the complexities of a decentralized system. However, in reality, federalism can lead to more efficient governance and increased accountability. With decision-making spread across different levels of government, the burden on the central authority is reduced, enabling more focused attention on national issues.
Uruguay, a smaller nation in South America, demonstrates how federal power-sharing can foster efficiency and transparency. Through its decentralized model, Uruguay has effectively empowered local governments to manage essential services, leading to greater responsiveness to citizens’ needs and a stronger sense of accountability.
Safeguarding Minority Rights
Smaller countries, like any other, may have diverse ethnic or cultural groups that need protection and representation. Federal power-sharing provides a mechanism to safeguard the rights and interests of minority communities. By granting regional autonomy, smaller countries can prevent the dominance of a single group and promote inclusive governance.
Belgium offers an illustrative case where federalism has been instrumental in addressing regional differences and linguistic diversity. The country’s federal structure grants significant powers to its regions, Flanders and Wallonia, allowing them to manage cultural and educational affairs while still maintaining a cohesive national identity.
Economic and Development Benefits
Another advantage of federal power-sharing in smaller countries lies in its potential to foster economic development. By empowering regional governments with decision-making authority over economic matters, smaller nations can stimulate growth and capitalize on their unique strengths. Each region can focus on developing its specific industries and resources, leading to overall economic diversification and resilience.
The Federal Republic of Germany serves as a prime example of how federalism can facilitate economic prosperity in smaller countries. Germany’s federal structure has allowed individual states to tailor economic policies to their needs, contributing to the nation’s overall economic strength and stability.
Managing Local Challenges
In smaller countries, local challenges and issues may not receive adequate attention under a centralized government. Federal power-sharing ensures that regional governments have the necessary resources and authority to address local concerns promptly and effectively. This fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility among citizens, leading to increased civic engagement and community development.
Australia, despite its large geographic size, serves as an excellent example of successful federal power-sharing in a country with varying regional needs. The federal system in Australia allows states and territories to handle issues such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure, leading to better management of local challenges.
Overcoming Resource Limitations
One of the common misconceptions about federal power-sharing in smaller countries is that limited resources may hinder its implementation. However, federalism can actually be advantageous in addressing resource constraints. By decentralizing governance and decision-making, smaller countries can tap into the potential of each region, maximizing resource utilization and efficiency.
Malaysia exemplifies how federal power-sharing can overcome resource limitations in a smaller country. The Malaysian government’s practice of devolving authority to individual states has enabled each region to leverage its resources and capabilities, contributing to the overall development of the nation.
The belief that federal power-sharing is unsuitable for smaller countries is a misconception that requires reconsideration. Smaller nations like Sri Lanka can benefit from federalism by customizing governance, empowering local authorities, increasing efficiency, and safeguarding minority rights. Successful examples from around the world, such as Switzerland, Uruguay, and Belgium, demonstrate that federal power-sharing is a versatile and effective system that can be adapted to suit the unique needs of smaller countries.
As Sri Lanka moves forward, it is crucial to dispel such misconceptions and engage in informed discussions about the most suitable governance systems for the nation. Federalism, is one such model of governance and power-sharing, when implemented thoughtfully, has the potential to strengthen national unity, enhance local development, and create a more inclusive and accountable government, regardless of a country’s size.