Federalism and Regime Change

Federalism and Regime Change

Published: 4 January 2024

Most of the world’s federations have been governed by non-democratic regimes for long periods of time and have experienced several transitions between authoritarianism and democracy and vice versa. What impact has regime change had on their federal system, in particular on the distribution of powers between the federal government and the constituent units, which we can refer to as de/centralisation?

Authoritarianism is traditionally associated with centralisation and democracy with decentralisation but do authoritarian regimes always centralise and democratic ones decentralise? To address this question, the De/Centralisation Dataset team has analysed the experience of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. As part of the De/Centralisation Dataset project, we measured de/centralisation annually in the five federations from the establishment of their respective federal orders to 2020.

We found that the impact of regime change varied greatly across dimensions of de/centralisation as well as between systems, and often did not align with the usual expectation that authoritarian regimes centralise and democratic ones decentralise. Other factors that cut across the authoritarianism/democracy divide, notably ideological orientations, had substantial impacts.

Dimensions of de/centralisation

De/centralisation can be approached from two perspectives: static and dynamic. Static de/centralisation is the distribution of powers between the central and the constituent governments of a federation at a given time. Dynamic de/centralisation is the change in the distribution over time, toward either greater centralisation or decentralisation. We conceptualise the autonomy of the constituent units of a federation as having three first-order dimensions: politico-institutional, policy, and fiscal. Politico-institutional autonomy is the degree to which constituent units have discretion to decide their own constitutional and institutional set-up. Policy autonomy is the discretion they have in enacting public policies in different fields. Fiscal autonomy relates to their ability to obtain financial resources through their own tax and borrowing powers, and to allocate such resources as they please.

Each of these first-order dimensions can be disaggregated into lower-order sub-dimensions. We divide politico-institutional autonomy into three sub-dimensions. The first, labelled constitutional autonomy, is the degree to which constituent units have discretion over their own constitutional set-up. The second, referred to as institutional autonomy, is whether the institution(s) governing a constituent unit are elected by the citizens of the unit, and hence can be deemed to reflect their preferences, or are appointed by the central government, and can be assumed to reflect the latter’s preferences. The third sub-dimension, which we call electoral manipulation, concerns the degree to which electoral processes in the constituent units are subject to manipulation by the central government so that their outcomes reflect the preferences of the central government more than the preferences of the electors in the unit in question.


In the policy sphere we distinguish between legislative and administrative autonomy in 22 policy fields, from agriculture to transport. Legislative autonomy refers to constituent units’ control of primary legislative powers in a policy field. Administrative autonomy concerns their discretion in policy implementation, for their own policies as well as those enacted by the federal government but implemented by the constituent units. Fiscal autonomy is sub-divided into five categories, such as the proportion of own-source revenues and constituent units’ freedom to borrow.

The impact of regime change

Regime change is the single most important factor shaping dynamic de/centralisation, but its impact differs greatly depending on which dimension of de/centralisation one considers and often does not conform to the standard expectation mentioned above. Authoritarianism had a much deeper impact on politico-institutional autonomy than on policy and, even less, fiscal autonomy. Most authoritarian regimes disbanded elected institutions in the constituent units, though some, in Brazil and Pakistan, suppressed them at first but restored them later while in Mexico elected institutions remained operational throughout. Where elected institutions were maintained, central manipulation typically increased, though, again, not invariably: manipulation, for instance, slowly declined in Mexico between 1945 and 1995. The impact of regime change on policy autonomy was much more subdued, especially as regards administration, and was least prominent in the fiscal sphere.

Cutting across different types of regime, we found ideology, in the form of economic interventionism or developmentalism versus laissez-faire or neo-liberalism, to have had a significant effect. Economic interventionism under both authoritarianism and democracy was associated with centralisation in many cases, especially in Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria, while laissez-faire and neo-liberalism heavily coloured the policy of, primarily administrative, decentralisation in the Latin American federations by authoritarian and democratic regimes alike.

Comparison with continuously democratic federations

As a result of the above, regime-change federations witnessed more clearly defined cycles of centralisation and decentralisation, in contrast to the largely linear centralisation trajectory that characterized most of the continuously democratic cases. This is especially the case in the politico-institutional sphere, which has proven to be the most sensitive to regime change. Regime-change federations also generally experienced deeper dynamic fiscal centralisation whereas differences are less stark in the policy sphere. The drivers of de/centralisation dynamics are also broadly similar. The most significant difference is arguably the effect of secession threats. Whereas Quebec’s secession threat has been seen as an important determinant of the lack of dynamic centralisation in Canada, the secession threats posed by Biafra and Bangladesh appear to have fuelled centralisation in, respectively, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Despite very different levels of static de/centralisation at the time of their formation, the two sets of federations had grown considerably more alike by 2020. The most noticeable remaining differences are that the constituent units of most regime-change federations had lower constitutional and fiscal autonomy and still faced significant electoral manipulation from the centre. In policy terms, though, differences were slight and legislative autonomy actually appeared to be higher in Pakistan than in all the continuously democratic cases bar Canada. These findings shed light on how federalism operates beyond consolidated democracies.


Paolo Dardanelli is a Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent and lead investigator behind the De/Centralisation Dataset (DcD).

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