What is the difference between unitary and federal systems?


There is no. universally accepted definition of the term ‘unitary’ and ‘federal’. This is because there have emerged varieties of political arrangements like unions.

Constitutionally decentralized unions, federations, confederations, associated states, condominiums, leagues, hybrids etc. which share or combine the structural features of both these two. Also in their actual working many unitary and federal systems have developed or deliberately included the features of each other.

Purposive Decentralisation


One finds ‘Purposive Decentralisation’ – a process through which the central or the national government transfer its authority to the local/provincial governments in a given jurisdiction – within an otherwise unitary system such as the U.K. and France. Decentralisation may be effected either through formal constitutional amendments, seeking formal and irreversible devolution of powers or through mere executive providing for temporary delegation of central authority. Similarly, we notice marked centralization of power within federal polities like the U.S.A. and India.


Centralisation in this context refers to a growth in the ability of the federal government to exercise its authority and control in the areas, which have been traditionally reserved for provincial competence. Centralisation is due to the implied powers, either judicially constructed as in the case of the U.S.A. or as provided in the Constitutions of India and Canada, of federal government to seek national uniformity in policymaking by the provinces, especially on subjects like health, education, environment and forest management, water resources trade and economic development etc. which have inter-state implications and pan-national bearings.

The federal government does this either through formal transfer of subjects from provincial jurisdictions to concurrent or federal jurisdiction, or through extension of its executive authority to provide guidelines to the provinces as to how to legislate and what to include within the laws framed by the State.


The federal Constitution of Germany has specifically empowered the federal government to enact framework legislation broadly covering the above mentioned subjects for the Legislation of the States. Article 75 of its constitution provides “if the Federation adopts framework legislation, the State is bound to adopt the necessary State statutes within an adequate time frame stipulated by the legislation”. Thus, it is on the pretext of seeking minimum uniformity of law and policy-planning that the federal governments in many federal states have encroached upon the autonomy of the federating units.

Sources of Power and its Arrangement within the System Usually within a federal system, it is the written constitution, which allocates powers, authority and competences to each level of government (federal and regional governments). Competences here refer to the relative autonomy of legislation and execution by a government on the subject assigned to it by the constitution. It is, therefore, non-contralisation that is the most important feature of a federal system.

Non-centralisation is quite different from decentralization in the sense that the latter envisages a power-centre, (usually central government) which according to its need, may either devolve or delegate authority to the lower or subordinate units of government, or when the need arises, it may recentralize the power again. Therefore, decentralization is always conditional and limited. Contrary to this, non-centralisation is a constitution-based diffusion of power among plurality of self-sustaining centers within a federal system.

In this mode of distribution, competence of a regional government can hardly be abrogated or taken over by the federal government. Both the levels of government are coordinate authorities enjoying relative independence and autonomy of decision making. Any change in the constitutional schema of distribution of powers can be effected only with mutual consent of each government, and that too through a very complex process of constitutional amendment. Non- centralisation is usually achieved and secured through the doctrine of separation of powers with checks and balances.


On the contrary, centralization and hierarchy are two essential features of a unitary system. The powers are heavily concentrated within the central or national government. Unlike the federal pre-requisite of a written constitution, the unitary system not necessarily needs a formal written constitution.

The source of power is not the constitution, but to draw the U.K. experience, it is the ‘King-in-Parliament’ from which emanate government. Also within a unitary system, powers are arranged hierarchically where each subordinate structure of the government acts as an extended arm of the superior apex authority i.e., the central government.

The regional/ local administration enjoys only limited functional autonomy. As a matter of fact, autonomy within a unitary system is a matter of functional convenience, rather being an essential constitutional principle of power-sharing’ and ‘self-rule’. Therefore, the extent of functional autonomy is relative to the degree of administrative-political decentralization at a given point of time within a unitary system.

Administrative decentralization is one of the mechanisms of devolution through which the central authority ‘off-load’ some of its functions to the local government for their better management, and to ensure an efficient national service delivery system. Thus, it is only in the ‘off-loaded’ area where the regional government enjoys autonomy and independence of decision-making.


Another noticeable difference between unitary and federal system lies in the manner and purpose of territorial delineation of administration. While in a unitary system, territorial administration is formed purely from function perspective and broadly to serve as an agency of the central government, territorial formation of polities within a federal system is intended to accommodate pluralism within a federal state. It is probably, the reason that the territorial units enjoy considerable constitutive autonomy and competences.

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