Contentious Federalism and the Multinational State

19 April 2022
Federal Scholar in Residence - Eurac Research

In November 1995, Canada’s political classes were scrambling to come up with a response to what had just happened in Quebec. On 30 October, the province had nearly voted to leave the country. The referendum was the culmination of a failure to grant Quebec ‘distinct society’ status in the constitution.

Federal asymmetry for the province, combined with explicit recognition of its distinctiveness, was for many Quebeckers a way to recognize that Canada was not a nation-state of a single Canadian people, but a multinational polity with Quebeckers as one of the constituent political communities. A mere two weeks after the referendum, Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta, mused about the possibility of revisiting Quebec’s distinct society status thus:

“If there is no special status (federal asymmetry) whatsoever and this is simply a recognition that there is something distinct about Quebec, or in fact if there's a mechanism available to allow any province to have within the Constitution an identification of distinctiveness, without implying special status, then that, maybe, could be sold. But if it implies in any way, shape or form special status, then we have a problem.”

Klein’s statement was an act of anti-recognition. Quebec could be recognized as distinct, only if its distinctiveness was emptied of all political content.

This episode is a vivid demonstration of the main premise behind my recently published book, The Symbolic State: far from being cold, technical regulations ensuring a combination of shared and self-rule, federal arrangements in multinational states are contentious, emotionally salient symbols. Of course, federal institutions do regulate the exercise of political power. But they also express ideas about the character of the state and the political community (or communities!) it encompasses. In other words, institutions “tell” stories about identity.

This is why demands by minority nations for greater self-government or autonomy should not be seen only through the instrumental prism of greater political control, more resources, or interest protection. Such demands almost always have an important symbolic dimension – they are about recognition of the multinational character of the state, and of a sub-state population as a national community in its own right.

I identify this symbolic dimension in four multinational states: Canada, Spain, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. When central authorities took the steps toward the symbolic reconfiguration of the state, they paved the way to majority backlash. Majorities are far more likely than minorities to identify with the common state; to believe that the citizenry of the state forms a single political community; and are puzzled when members of minority nations do not share these dispositions. Reorganizing the state on a multinational model undermines their self-understanding and produces resentment.

This resentment can result in open political mobilization in opposition to the newly emerging symbolic order. Mobilization shows the minority population that there is a significant segment among the majorities that simply cannot be reconciled to a multinational vision of the state. Moreover, it is likely to lead to reversal of any concessions that were made. Both of these then strengthen the hand of secessionist political actors in minority regions. This pattern emerged in three of the four states I analyzed: Canada, Spain, and Yugoslavia. In Czechoslovakia, where no major symbolic reordering took place, no majority backlash occurred, and support for independence in Slovakia never exceeded 20%. The country’s breakup was a result of an elite deal rather than an upsurge in secessionist sentiment.

Why does all of this matter? For one thing, it provides new answers to long-standing questions. It shows that multinational federalism does not automatically lead to secession. Quite far-reaching reforms of federal institutions – including significant transfer of resources, policy responsibilities, and powers – need not result in secessionist crises, as long as those reforms do not undermine the symbolic order subscribed to by a significant proportion of those among the majority nation. Institutional change that shifts the meaning of formal institutions does, however, tend to produce majority reactions. Note, in addition, that contrary to much work that has foreground how minority (or claimant) nations drive the secessionist agenda, this book demonstrates that it is the interplay of majority and minority nationalism that pushes countries to the brink of breakup and consequently, beyond.

The book also revisits the debate about the relative importance of ‘ideas’ and ‘interests’ (notably material interests). While mainstream researchers have tended to argue nationalist ideas and principles are window-dressing for ‘real’ interests, here I suggest, though I’m hardly the only one, that it might be the other way round. ‘Real interests’ are at times a post-hoc justification and – quite literally – rationalization of more deep-seated, non-rational commitments to a particular vision of the polity. In worst case scenarios, commitment to abstract symbols can lead to destruction of actual lives and livelihoods.

Finally, there are some clues for policy-makers here. While the book could be of use to political actors on all sides of the secession divide, here I focus on central authorities. They are, after all, in the driver’s seat when it comes to managing competing national projects. At times, governing actors make political moves for short-term political gain, without paying sufficient attention to the systemic consequences of those moves. Initiating symbolically loaded institutional reform for electoral purposes, for instance, can produce the kinds of majority backlash and rise in support for secession that I outline in the book.

The monograph cautions against taking lightly what might appear as ‘merely symbolic’ issues. If this path is nevertheless taken, this should be done with confidence that such decisions will not have to be reversed by, for example, building a broad coalition among majority parties that will support the change. From the perspective of political stability, it is better not to offer major symbolic concessions in the first place than it is to raise hopes only to later dash them.

Book presentation

[ex libris] The Symbolic State Minority Recognition, Majority Backlash,and Secession in Multinational Countries and Autonomy

23 June 2022 15:00–16:30 CEST 14:00–15:30 UTC+1 Zoom

Register here:


[ex libris] The Symbolic State

Karlo Basta

Karlo Basta is a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, and the co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change. In 2016, he was Federal Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research. Dr. Basta is a scholar of comparative politics of nationalism with a focus on multinational states. He has written on institutional formation and change in multinational systems, the consequence of that change for political stability, and the politics of nationalist conflict and secession. His work has been published in Comparative Political Studies, Political Psychology, Publius, Nations and Nationalism, and other journals. Dr. Basta is the author of The Symbolic State: Minority Recognition, Majority Backlash, and Secession in Multinational Countries (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021).


Basta, K. Contentious Federalism and the Multinational State.

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