Exogenous threats pose a formidable challenge to multilevel governments, as they compel all levels to cooperate to prevent a collective risk. We here argue that coordination failures in the context of an external threat make the central government become the focal point of the solution. In search of a more effective response against the threat, citizens coordinate their preferences around the centralization of authority boundaries in the federation. We test this argument using a series of on-line survey experiments in Spain, a country where the threat caused by COVID-19 has operated on top of non-negligible centrifugal threats.
The empirical analyses show that, in the context of the pandemic, exposure to vertical coordination failures prompt citizens to support a centralized redrawing of authority boundaries, though this effect is importantly conditioned by respondents’ partisanship, territorial preferences and the salience of the threat. We repeat the same experiment in a comparative sample of 12 federations, quasi-federations and decentralized unitary countries. Our findings suggest that external shocks may represent turning points for the stability of these regimes, as citizens’ centralizing demands might encounter elite level strategic adjustments of authority.