What is the difference between unitary and federal systems?

A unitary system is different from a federal system in that a unitary system is composed of one central government that holds all the power, while a federal system divides power between national and local forms of government.

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The basic difference between a unitary and a federal system of government is that in the former, power is concentrated, whereas in the latter, it is dispersed. In a unitary system, you have one power center, if you will, residing in a centralized government that is ultimately supreme. To be sure, power can still be delegated in a unitary state, but that is only if the central government chooses to do so.

In a federal system, on the other hand, such as that which exists in the United States, for example, the precise division of powers between the center and the periphery is established right at the outset, usually by a formal document, such as a written constitution.

In other words, power in a federal system is dispersed because of the relevant constitutional provisions, not because the central government chose to delegate that power. Having thus been established, a federal system operates on the basis of multiple centers of political power and authority. In the United States, this involves the Federal government, based in Washington, D.C., as well as state and local governments.

The precise nature of the relationship between these separate entities differs from one federation to the next. But all federations involve some sharing of power—which, as we saw earlier, is dispersed rather than concentrated at the center.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 27, 2020
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Put simply, the difference between a unitary and a federal government is that a unitary government puts its power in one central government while in a federal system the governing power is divided into federal and local governing bodies that connect to the national government.

The Unitary governing system:

• Places its power in one central governing system

• Very little political power exists outside the central government

• The powers of this governing system are uniformly applied throughout

• All major government decisions are made by the central government

• If smaller government units are established they are controlled by the central government and can be abolished by such without their consent

• Many unitary governments are either dictatorships or totalitarian

• France, although Democratic, is governed by a Unitarian body

• Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Barbados, Morocco, and Spain are examples of unitary monarchy government

• China, Afghanistan, Italy, Zambia, and the Ukraine are examples of unitary republic government

The Federal Governing System:

• Distributes power from the national government to local/state governments to adopt laws that are reasonable to the country as a whole and the localities

• Power may be diffused in the federal system

• Multi-national states often have a federal system

• Larger countries often adopt the federal system since constituents may live in areas remote to the location of the central government

• Ethnicities with in a country may lead to a federal system as their rules and laws may vary. An example of this is the small country of Belgium which balances the needs two distinct ethnic groups

• The United States has a federal governing system with a national government and Constitution, in conjunction with states governments and constitutions

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A federal government fosters a power sharing pact between the national government and the member states’ local governments. This type of system seeks to ensure resources are closer to the citizens and so it is used in large nations to ensure equitable sharing of resources. There is also a high level of control that can be exercised within the state by the local institutions without interference from the central government. The laws established by the local government should be in line with the fundamental laws of the central government. It is important to note that some states can establish laws that are not existent in other states. Examples of countries practicing the federal system include the US and Belgium.

A Unitary government is characterized by centralization of power and authority is mostly exercised by the national government. Resources are shared from the central government to the different regions within the country. The different regions within the country may at most times lack the authority to establish their own laws especially in purely unitary systems. Examples of countries practicing the unitary system of government include France and Israel.

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In a unitary system, the central government has all the power.  In a federal system, some powers are given to the central government and other powers are given to the lower levels of government (provinces or states).

In a unitary system, the central government gets to decide what powers, if any, to give to the lower levels of government.  Even if it gives them some power, it can always take it back.  The lower levels of government have no right to their power.

In a federal system, they have a right to their powers.  The central government cannot just take those powers away.  Typically, as with the US, there is a written constitution that tells what powers go to the national government and what powers go to the lower levels.

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