Advantages of a federal state compared with a unitary state
Distribution of power
In a federation, the classical horizontal division of the powers of state (legislative - executive - judicial) is complemented by a vertical division of power between the state as a whole and the individual member states. Distribution of power ensures that there are checks and balances, helping to prevent abuse of power.
Subdivision into smaller political units makes state action clearer and more comprehensible, which helps to foster active participation and co-determination. Furthermore, each citizen has two opportunities to exercise the most fundamental democratic right, namely the right to vote; in a federation, elections are held both for the national parliament and for the parliaments of the individual member states.
Political parties have more opportunities to hold power and competition between parties is encouraged, as they can exercise political responsibility in the individual member states even if they are in the minority nationally. This gives parties an opportunity to test and prove their capacity for leadership by offering them a chance to demonstrate how they perform once elected.
Proximity to tasks
In a federation, public bodies are closer to regional problems than in a unitary state. There are no remote, forgotten provinces.
Citizens enjoy more rapid access to the public authorities. It is easier for them to contact politicians and the public authorities than in a unitary state with a remote and anonymous centre.
The states that make up a federation are always competing with one another, which gives them greater vitality. Exchange of experience fosters progress and helps to avoid undesirable developments at the national level.
Mutual control, reciprocal consideration and the need to seek compromises prevent or at least hamper extreme positions. Federalism has a balancing and thus a stabilising effect.
When a country is divided into federal states or Länder, many economic, political and cultural centres develop. This provides a more favourable environment to preserve and develop specific regional, historical, economic and cultural features. This diversity can lead to more freedom.
Disadvantages of a federal state compared with a unitary state
Lack of uniformity
The federal states’ autonomy necessarily means there are differences between the states. Diversity is the opposite of uniformity. This can result in some difficulties, for instance, for school children if a family moves from one federal state to another.
As decisions are taken in many different centres in the Federal Republic, and power is shared between the Federation and the Länder, it is essential that the various tiers of government co-operate and show consideration for each other. The various bodies that hold power exercise mutual oversight and function in a checks-and-balances system. This interweaving of responsibility is complex and sometimes hard for citizens to understand.
The parliaments, governments and administrations in the Federation and the federal states have to wait for initiatives, decisions or consent from each other and engage in lengthy negotiations in order to arrive at joint solutions. This can be a time-consuming process.
Running individual parliaments, governments and administrations in the Federation and the Länder is considered, on the whole, to be more expensive than maintaining the corresponding bodies in a unitary state. It is debatable whether this is indeed a valid assumption, because Länder institutions could not simply be closed down in a unitary state, but would have to be replaced in some form. Federal institutions would certainly have to be expanded and mammoth centralised bodies might not ultimately prove to be cheaper.