As we prepare to replace the failed NRM government that has rejected federalism, Ugandans have been discussing the benefits of federalism by examining theory and practice. We have examined the experiences in the United Kingdom, Belgium and Indonesia.
The purpose of the debate is to see what is suitable for Uganda because federalism comes in many varieties and contexts. What is pleasantly clear is that federalism is increasing. As of 2008, there were 28 federal states – five of them from Africa. What does the Swiss federalism tell us?
In 1291 three cantons (a canton is a state of the Swiss confederation) formed a league – a kind of constitution – initially for defense purposes. The three cantons were regarded as a unit. Between 1332 and 1352 four cantons were added to that unit. It was controlled by a federal diet (legislative assembly) while retaining much autonomy for the cantons. Political and security considerations drew the cantons closer together.
By the 16th century, the confederation was still very loose but the number of cantons had increased to thirteen. Each canton sent two representatives to the federal diet. Through diplomatic efforts the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended the thirty years’ war recognized Swiss independence.
Swiss neutrality during the war attracted many refugees. However, neutrality required a strong army that strengthened canton bonds. Because of this migration, Swiss society is characterized by diversity divided broadly by religion and geography as in Uganda.
The Swiss loose confederation accorded each canton a large measure of autonomy including choosing its form of government. The 1655 proposals to establish a more centralized state were rejected. During the 1797/98 session, the diet renewed the oath to maintain Swiss unity and autonomy within Europe.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna established the principle of perpetual Swiss neutrality following which a constitutional convention drew up a new federal pact, establishing a diet with restricted powers and required a vote of two-thirds of the cantons to ratify any act by the diet. The new arrangements consolidated the autonomy of cantons within the Swiss confederation.
In 1848, the new Swiss constitution which was modeled on that of the United States of America replaced the 1815 pact, recognizing Switzerland as a federal union. The new constitution preserved the local government of cantons. The federal legislative authority resided in two chambers: the Council of State with two members from each canton and the National Council members of which were elected in numbers proportional to the population size of each canton. The executive branch of government was a Federal Council made up of seven members elected by the two legislative chambers. The Council’s chairperson for one year was given the title of president of the confederation without enjoying more powers than the colleagues.
In economic matters, the Swiss federal government sought to standardize the currency, weights and measures, expand and regulate postal and communication services, encourage technological development. However, greater federal economic control was constrained because cantons retained significant autonomy underpinned by their respective constitutions.
In 1874, a new constitution gave more powers to the federal government to reorganize the federal militia. It introduced a system of referendum and initiative that gave the Swiss people to vote on legislation. For example, in 1953, the voters rejected the constitutional amendment for a federal direct tax. The constitution provided compulsory education for boys and girls and freedom of religion. The 1892 constitution extended civil rights. Between 1890 and 1898 the federal government was empowered to enact social insurance, purchase privately owned railways and unify and enforce civil and penal codes.
Between 1970 and 1985 immigration restrictions were enacted limiting the number of foreign workers. The rules governing political asylum were also revised requiring refugees to prove they were not economic migrants. In 1999, a national referendum restricted further the influx of refugees.
What we have learned is that Swiss federalism has been a gradual process principally to retain and protect wide powers for the cantons. The Federal Council is run by a team, not one person as in Uganda. The federalism that UDU has been recommending is basically in line with the Swiss experience.
Secretary General, UDU