Federalism in Pakistan: Challenges and Response

Shahid H. Raja
14 min readFeb 17, 2022



Federalism can be defined as a form of government in which powers are divided between two levels of government, namely a central government and many constituent provincial/regional governments, based on equality of status and formalized through constitutional guarantees and institutional mechanisms.

Federalism is often a choice for large countries but is mostly chosen by countries that have a very diverse population, living in different parts of the country, who wish to preserve their own identities.

Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic, with powers shared between the Federal government and the provinces under a written constitution. However, federalism in Pakistan has a chequered history due to certain historical reasons. This article tries to identify those reasons and make some suggestions for making Pakistan a genuine federal state.

What is Federalism?

Federalism is a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a central or “federal” government with regional governments (provincial/state) in a single political system. Its distinctive feature is a relationship of parity between the two levels of government established. It can thus be defined as a form of government in which powers are divided between two levels of government of equal status.

Only 30 of the world’s 195 countries are federations. Yet, together, these 30 countries represent 40 per cent of the world’s population. In other words, almost half the world’s people are governed under a federal political system.

Federalism is often a choice for large countries like India, the United States, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, and Nigeria. It is also often chosen by countries that have a very diverse population, living in different parts of the country, who wish to preserve their own identities. Their diversity could be ethnic, religious, or linguistic. Belgium, Switzerland, and Nepal are such countries.

According to Daniel Ziblatt’s Structuring the State, there are four competing theoretical explanations in the academic literature for the adoption of federal systems:

  1. Ideational Theories hold that a greater degree of ideological commitment to decentralist ideas in society makes federalism more likely to be adopted.
  2. Cultural-historical Theories hold that federal institutions are more likely to be adopted in societies with culturally or ethnically fragmented populations.
  3. Social Contract Theories hold that federalism emerges as a bargain between a centre and a periphery where the centre is not powerful enough to dominate the periphery and the periphery is not powerful enough to secede from the centre.
  4. “Infrastructural Power” Theories, hold that federalism is likely to emerge when the subunits of a potential federation already have highly developed infrastructures (e.g. they are already constitutional, parliamentary, and administratively modernized states).

Features of a Federal State

As a response to challenges of size and diversity, federalism can take various forms. And, since no single country is exactly like another, no federal system is exactly alike either. Nevertheless, federalism does have some distinct, defining characteristics which make it different from other forms of decentralisation.

1. Two Tiers of Governance

The first characteristic is that federal systems have at least two levels of government. There is a central level of government (also sometimes known as the federal or union level) that governs the entire country concerning issues of importance to everyone. This usually means matters like defence, the armed forces, foreign policy, trade, citizenship, macro-economic policy, and national infrastructures like ports and airports.

The second level of government operates in the states, regions, provinces, or other entities into which the country is divided. Each of these has control over certain types of policy and legislation, usually of immediate relevance to its own people. This often includes the delivery of services such as roads and public health services and issues of cultural significance — like education and broadcasting.

These are, of course, just typical examples. The level of decentralisation and the exact distribution of powers and responsibilities vary greatly between federations, depending on their needs and circumstances. For example, in Nigeria, environmental protection is a state matter, but in Malaysia, it is run along federal lines.

In some federal systems, some powers do not belong exclusively to either level of government but are shared between them. In India, for example, both the Indian Parliament and the State Legislatures can pass laws on criminal justice and social and economic planning. But, if there is an incompatibility between them, the central level of legislation prevails.

2. Formalised Decision Making

The second characteristic of federalism is that it provides processes and mechanisms by which the different states, provinces, or regions of the federation can be included in decision-making at the central (or union) level. Normally, this takes the form of an upper House of Parliament, or Senate, in which these states, provinces, or regions are represented.

In Australia and Argentina, for example, each state is represented in the Senate by an equal number of directly elected Senators; in India and Malaysia, some members of the upper house are chosen indirectly by the members of the State legislatures.

Power-sharing is also achieved through cooperation between different levels of government. In Canada, a Council made up of the heads of provincial governments meets to discuss issues of common interest and to coordinate service delivery. For example, although healthcare in Canada is primarily a provincial concern, the Council has enabled provincial ministers to work together to lower pharmaceutical prices across the entire country.

3. Constitutional Guarantees

The third characteristic is that in federal systems, the powers and responsibilities of the different levels of government are enshrined in a constitution, which protects this federal agreement from being easily changed. In many federations, the states, regions, or provinces have a veto over constitutional changes, so neither level of government can unilaterally strip the other of its powers.

In India, any amendments to the constitution that affect the distribution of power between the union and the states must be approved by both the central parliament and the parliaments of the majority of Indian states. To protect the federal arrangement, the Constitution needs to include an impartial judicial body — such as a Supreme Court or constitutional court—that enforces that agreement in a fair and balanced way.

But federalism is not a panacea. There are specific challenges that federalism alone cannot resolve, e.g., how to protect minorities or the fact that federalism can be expensive as you need to build institutions not only at the central, but also at the regional, state, and provincial levels. Sometimes the different levels have difficulties coordinating policies or policy responses, such as to pandemics or natural disasters.

At its heart, federalism is a constitutional agreement that enables different communities of people, who live in different territories, to live together in one country. This agreement recognises that the country is better off united, while, at the same time, protecting the autonomy and rights of its diverse people

Federalism in Pakistan

Pakistan is a federal parliamentary republic, with powers shared between the Federal government and the provinces. Relations between the federation and provinces are defined in Part V (Articles 141–159) of the constitution. The powers of the Provinces and the Federal government were defined by the constitution, and the legislative powers are divided into two lists. The concurrent List was abolished after the 18th Amendment, and most of them were transferred to provinces.

The Council of Common Interests, or CCI, was the body that solved disputes between the federation and provinces. The membership of CCI consisted of the Prime Minister, Provincial Chief Ministers, and three members nominated by the federal government

In some senses, federalism has long been rooted in the statecraft of the subcontinent. Devices of territorial autonomy were used as a means of managing diversity and as methods of government in the time of the Mughals, though it is arguable to what extent they were effective. The British also understood the administrative necessity of federalism as a tool to perpetuate their rule over the subcontinent, with a gradual delegation of power and responsibilities over time to the states and provinces of India from 1919 onward. With gradual increments, the British experiment with federalism culminated in the Government of India Act of 1935

Challenges to Federalism in Pakistan

It is quite a paradox that except for the Constitution of 1962, all constitutional arrangements, including the Government of India Act, of 1935, the Constitution of 1956, and the Constitution of 1973, are essentially federal in character, though in practice a centralized form of government prevails in the country. What are the reasons for the derailment of the process of federalism in Pakistan?

1. Over-developed State

Pakistan’s federal dilemmas are what Hamza Alavi has termed an “Overdeveloped State’. Alavi argued that due to colonial imperatives to extract resources, maintain internal security, and defend the state from external aggression, the state in British India was overdeveloped vis a vis provincial and regional units. The new state of Pakistan inherited this overdeveloped state from the ex-colonial society. The state also inherited, according to Alavi, a strong military-administrative apparatus and directly appropriated a large part of the national economic surplus.

2. Garrison State Strategic Culture

Strategic culture can be defined as the mindset of the ruling elite of a country, consisting of their shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behaviour when faced with a situation needing decision-making. It is formed by common experiences and accepted narratives that shape collective identity and determine appropriate ends and means to accomplish national security objectives.

The blood-soaked creation of Pakistan coupled with its permanent hostility toward two of its neighbours has unfortunately resulted in what Harold Lasswell described as a “Garrison State.” A deep, even paranoid, fear of the military might and superiority of India has turned Pakistan into a “garrison state”, with an economy dominated by military spending and civil liberties eroded. In a country with limited resources, such an imbalance in resource distribution between security and welfare objectives creates the biggest challenge for a country where the bulk of the security apparatus belongs to one province.

3. Nature of Nation-state

Here is a Catch-22 situation; Pakistan is a multi-ethnic state with a wide disparity of population and area on the one hand and the availability of resources on the other. Pakistan desperately needs true federalism but cannot have it because of the very nature of its nation-state. Baluchistan is the biggest province, having the smallest population of the state, Punjab, the dominant province in terms of population and size, has further divisions on linguistic and territorial grounds.

Small provinces always raised their voices against the unjust sharing of resources, administrative posts, and political positions. They complain that most resources and political and administrative positions are shared by the two dominant provinces, Punjab and Sindh, while other federating units and regions are usually deprived of these prestigious positions, which is causing unrest in those regions

4. Nature of Politics

Although Pakistan owes its creation to a democratic struggle, half of its post-independence existence was under military regimes because of the lack of healthy political traditions. Every military dictator who took over the reins of the country on the pretext of ridding the political system of corrupt practices and putting the country on a trajectory of high growth rates left it economically ruined and democratically exhausted. One left it truncated into two independent states. The repeated derailment of the democratic and constitutional processes heightened tensions on issues of economic management, provincial autonomy, and discretionary powers, particularly those vested in the office of the President of Pakistan.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais has rightly stated that “the history of military dictators is characterized by deceit, institutional decay, political fragmentation, moral and social rot, (that produced polarization), insurgencies, and alliances of the state with violent ethnic and religious groups”.

5. Institutional Weaknesses

Federalism needs robust institutions such as parliamentary democracy, the armed forces, administrative machinery, the criminal justice system, local government institutions, etc. for its long-term survival. However, due to multiple reasons, there is a gradual decay of almost every institution. This institutional decay can be seen in the deteriorating law/order, weakened writ of the state even in settled areas, increased terrorist activities, load shedding, water scarcity, delayed justice, illiteracy, abysmal human development record, and poverty level. The list goes on.

There may be several reasons for the above-mentioned institutional dysfunctionality, such as the capacity deficit of the political elite, frequent and prolonged military intervention, politicization, nepotism, etc. Whatever the reason, the fact is that there is a grave crisis of confidence among the masses about the efficacy of some of these institutions.

The Way Forward

The future of the Pakistani federation is inextricably linked to two types of structures: its territorial structure and its governance structure;

A. Territorial Structure: Whether Pakistan will retain its federal structure whereby all the provinces have voluntarily abdicated some of their powers in favour of the centre to run the country as a federal nation-state. Or it will revert to a unitary form of the country whereby all the provinces are merged into one unit, like the one we used to have from 1954 to 1970.

B. Governance Structure: Whether Pakistan will run as a parliamentary democracy or opt for the Presidential form of government.

Fortunately, there is a broad consensus on these two issues among all the social and political stakeholders in Pakistan. It will remain a federation with maximum provincial autonomy, and it will be governed under a parliamentary democracy. Any change in the above two conditions will have catastrophic implications for the existence of Pakistan.

Keeping in view the chequered history of federalism in Pakistan, we must have a clear-cut vision for the future backed by a definite roadmap to ensure that Pakistan becomes a genuine federal state as visualised by its founding fathers. This vision must include a blueprint for redressing the inequities created as a result of colonial wrongdoings and past mismanagement.

Centrifugal tendencies are inherent in any post-colonial state because of the boundaries left behind by the retreating colonial powers and the mix of nationalities that have clubbed together to live within these boundaries. It needs a very careful and prudent planning process with a five-pronged broad-spectrum attack: economic inclusion, democratic empowerment, affirmative action, mainstreaming, and social justice. Some of the suggestions

1. Provincial re-engineering is needed.

We cannot change the international borders, however arbitrary they may have been left by the ex-colonial masters. However, it is now time to re-demarcate the internal boundaries according to the wishes of the people. If one province is too big in terms of population or power structure share, there is a need to balance this anomaly by carving out new regional entities based on language, which is one of the most important markers of a distinct nationality. The predominant position of one province or region, perceived as exploiting the smaller provinces, is anathema for any federation

2. Let Democracy Work

Democracy has been much maligned for its alleged shortcomings, such as corruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions, slow economic growth, etc. However, despite all these allegations, democracy is still the best form of governance humanity has ever experimented with. Let it run its course. Frequent, free, and fair elections will ultimately prop up capable leadership for a while, accountable to the public. Only genuine leaders elected through popular universal franchises are capable of holding the federating units together; dictatorship always leaves the countries broken and in a mess.

3. Don’t force cultural homogeneity.

You cannot force cultural homogeneity through the barrel of a gun or state edicts. The evolution of a particular national culture takes time, to which each federating unit contributes. Let a hundred flowers of different varieties and hues bloom rather than having a garden full of roses only. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of a true federation. Give respect to every major language spoken and let a national language evolve over time. Do not go for revolutionary and drastic changes just for the sake of structural transformation. The law of unintended consequences may sabotage all your good intentions. Incremental changes give you time to make midterm corrections and pay dividends from a broader perspective.

4. Strengthen the Institutions

Soon after independence, people were very emotional about their new-found nation-state; however, this sentimental legitimacy must be converted into institutional legitimacy by strengthening the service delivery institutions by improving their efficiency and effectiveness, and broadening their ownership. Some of the institutions that matter the most are the armed forces, law and order agencies, judicial institutions, and nation-building departments like health, education, and general administration.

Civil society organisations and media are two very powerful institutions that can play a crucial role in making or breaking a country. Timely and forceful articulation of the grievances of deprived regions by these institutions should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. They are also instrumental in creating and fostering common denominators of cultural and social homogeneity in a country. Stifling them will deprive policymakers of a useful channel of two-way communication with the populace.

5. Concentrate on Economic Growth with Social Justice

Ultimately, it is only through growth that poverty can be alleviated and inequalities reduced, but the content of growth and the equitable distribution of the fruits of growth matter more. Patterns of growth envisaged in the initial stages determine the prosperity of certain regions and the deprivation of others in the long run. Let the market forces work, but the state must always be correcting the anomalies these forces always create due to the inherent logic of the capitalistic model of growth, which is no doubt far more efficient than other modes but is also efficient in all its negative fallout. As every student of economics knows, market forces left to themselves not only create inequalities but also accentuate and reinforce them.

6. Devolution works

Devolution of powers and decentralisation of service delivery institutions, backed by equitable distribution of resources, are two of the key instruments to curb centrifugal tendencies among regions feeling marginalisation. Devolution can hold any federation together by helping to prevent or reduce conflict because it reduces actual or perceived inequities between various regions or between a region and the central government.

7. Keep an Eye on Early Warning Indicators

Federations do not break overnight. Their seeds of destruction take time to germinate. There is always a time to salvage the situation, provided the leadership is responsible and responsive, civil society is aggressive, and the media is vigilant. Keep an eye on early warning signs of centrifugal tendencies and address them in time and sagaciously. What Machiavelli said five hundred years ago is still applicable. ‘Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated, they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’


Pakistan has made many blunders in the past but it has learnt its lessons well. One bitter lesson is that only a democratic dispensation can keep its federation. For this, we must give credit to the people of Pakistan for their overwhelming preference and the constant struggle for the restoration of democracy during all three periods of dictatorship. They have realized that despite all its alleged shortcomings, such as corruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions, and slow economic growth, democracy is still the best form of governance humanity has ever experimented with. Frequent, free, and fair elections will ultimately prop up leadership capable of holding the federating units together; dictatorship always leaves the countries broken and in a mess.

The Eighteenth Amendment has tried to address these issues while keeping in view Pakistan’s historical context, its polity, and its objective conditions. In other words, the Eighteenth Amendment throws up a Pakistani federalism that learns from the experiences of others but is rooted in Pakistani reality. The Amendment provides ownership and participation in policy and management of natural resources and increases the legislative powers of the provincial assemblies, including those on taxation. In fact, in the new structural setup of the Pakistani federation, its provinces enjoy far more powers than are available to provinces/states in a country with a federal structure.

Thus, neither the Pakistani state nor its federation is facing an existential threat. Yes, it is facing multiple challenges emanating from within the country or posed by the rapidly changing regional and global geostrategic environment. But the good thing is that these challenges are forcing its institutions, structures, and culture to change and adapt themselves to new realities.

The media is becoming more responsible as compared to a few years ago while civil society is becoming more active and effective. These are turbulent but transitory times, shaping the state and society towards progress and not decline.

Now civil society organizations, journalists, politicians, and other interest groups have a part to play in managing differences and creating home-grown federalism that is rooted in the local polity and ensures unity in variety.


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From the Ebook “ Pakistan Studies-20 Essays” by Shahid Hussain Raja, published by Amazon https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MSF3UMR