Federalism in polarized times

Powers are being transferred to regional governments across the world. This is based on the promise of better governance or as a strategy for diffusing self-determination conflicts. However, the degree of success of such territorial devolution varies a lot, which has prompted scholars and analysts to question the conditions under which federal institutions can fulfil their democratic promises. The essential mechanisms that make federal structures work seem particularly challenged in a context of political polarisation, as currently seen in a number of European states. Based on the study of polarisation and growing secessionism in Spain (Catalonia) and a comparative analysis between European democracies, I aim to explore the functioning of federal institutions in such a challenging context. Financial support from the James M. Trust and the Comunidad Autónoma de Madrid through the Talento Fellowship will allow me to put social science to work towards a better understanding of one of the most pressing political issues in our times: how institutions can be effective under polarised politics.


Federalism has long gained political traction worldwide and decentralization reforms are being implemented around the world grounded on the promises of better democratic governance, higher economic efficiency and political stability. However, a comparative analysis of the practice of federal institutions shows mixed results. In some cases, federal institutions have helped to reinforce democratic transitions as well as the appeasement of ethnic conflict, whereas in other cases federal arrangements have been perilous and resulted in poor fiscal management, ethnic conflict and hampered accountability.

The heterogeneous performance of federal institutions prompts the following question: under what conditions does federalism fulfil its promises of enhanced democracy and political stability? This research project purports to explore this question in the light of increasing political polarisation in European democracies due to the rise of left-wing and right-wing populist parties. The project will advance recent contributions on the state-of-art of devolution and federalism (see Däubler, Müller and Stecker 2017; Tatham and Mbaye 2018), which overlook the effect of polarisation in current territorial and intergovernmental dynamics.  

Polarisation challenges the foundations of federal institutions. First, it hampers political compromise and bargaining among political actors. Federalism involves the vertical fragmentation of fiscal and expenditure powers across different levels of government. It is organised around power-sharing structures and veto points, a system that can only operate through concessions and intergovernmental negotiation. The increasing polarisation of ideological positions in European party systems put these grounds to task, undermining the effectiveness of federal institutions and, in turn, its associated benefits. Second, polarisation may intensify the role of partisanship and territorial identity upon individuals’ political judgements and evaluations of political action. The role of biases may undermine accountability because individuals’ electoral support for governments becomes disconnected from actual policy and economic results.   

Organisation of the project

The project is organised around 3 research lines:

  1. The impact of populist parties upon intergovernmental relations in federal states.
  2. The study of electoral accountability and attribution of responsibility in polarized contexts.
  3. Territorial reform of the Spanish state and the Catalan conflict. Empirical evidence using conjoint analysis and survey experiments.