The AFW was created shortly after the conclusion of the Psi Wars. Its purpose was simple: to provide for the military defense of member worlds and systems. Since that time its purpose has expanded somewhat, and its size dwarfs all other governing bodies in known space. The AFW is comprised of more than 75,000 habitable star systems: it’s closest competitor, the Empire of the Radiant Throne, is only two thirds that size.
The AFW is commonly thought of as a democratic republic, but this is not entirely true: while it is organized and run as a republic on a federal level, on a local level -- “local” meaning “individual star systems that are represented on the federal level,” -- the actual form of governance varies.
There are two ways a system may be affiliated with the AFW: systems with full membership participate in the full political process of the AFW, and are organized as provinces or federal territories within the AFW. The systems elect governors and senate bodies that oversee local concerns, and elect senators to send on to the Federal Senate, as well as participate in the direct election of the AFW President and Vice President. This is the type of government most people think about when they think of the AFW as a whole.
However, the number of systems with full membership are comparatively small when compared to the AFW as a whole. It is much more common to encounter systems with autonomous membership. The relationship between the AFW and an autonomous member is complicated.
Autonomous member systems are, on a local level, almost completely exempt from the laws and regulations of the AFW as a whole. They may govern themselves however they wish, and there are many examples of autonomous member systems with governments that appear antithetical to the common perception of AFW governance: some systems are true monarchies, others are rigidly enforced caste systems, one or two systems of note are very close to lawless brigand-states. Some autonomous members have legal systems that the rest of the AFW finds draconian and embarrassing.
This increase in local control, however, comes with a price. Autonomous members are required to provide financial and material support to the AFW federal infrastructure, particularly the Interstellar Defense Force (IDF) that makes up the AFW’s military might. Autonomous members send representatives to the Federal Senate, but those representatives only have voting rights in specific instances, and autonomous members cannot participate in the election of the AFW President or Vice President. Finally, autonomous members are required to have a “federal city” on every member homeworld whose population exceeds a specific amount, and that federal city is under direct federal control: federal law, not local law, applies within federal city territories.
Federal cities are very unpopular among the autonomous member governments, especially among governments who are generally more restrictive or oppressive than the AFW as a whole. On the whole, however, most autonomous members, even the ones who find even the limited presence of federal government an inconvenience, find the advantages of the association far outweigh the costs.
Taken from An Informal Guide to Known Space, Edition XVI, McPherson/Sovitt Publications.