Consociationalism Research Paper

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The term ‘consociational’ dates back at least to 1603, when the German scholar and statesman Althusius used it to denote a polity consisting of an association of several societies. In modern political science, ‘Consociational democracy means government by elite cartel to turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy’ (Lijphart 1969, p. 216). Although this situation has been labeled in a variety of ways (‘Politics of Accommodation,’ ‘Power-sharing,’ ‘Pacificatie-democratie’ (in Dutch), ‘Pro-porzdemokratie’ or ‘Konkordanzdemokratie’ (in German)), consociational democracy (or consociationalism) is the term that is most widely used. Consociationalism is used empirically to explain stable democracy in deeply divided societies, and normatively to prescribe a solution to societies where democracy is at risk because of social segmentation. In this research paper these two uses are examined in turn, before discussing some of the criticisms passed on the theory.

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1. The Consociational Explanation

Deep social cleavages, whether they are based on ideology, religion, class, language, or ethnicity, generally are regarded as unfavorable conditions for stable democracy. The risk is limited when cleavages are crosscutting (e.g., when members of a particular ethnic group belong to different social classes), because this is supposed to generate cross pressures which have a moderating effect on social conflicts. The risk is greatest when social cleavages coincide and reinforce each other (e.g., when all members of a particular ethnic group belong to one social class, and all members of another ethnic group to another). However, there are democracies that maintain political stability despite coinciding cleavages. In the late 1960s and early 1970s case studies of several such countries revealed a common pattern: social conflict was not moderated by crosscutting cleavages at the mass level, but by cooperation between the social segments at the elite level (e.g., Lehmbruch 1974, Lijphart 1975, Steiner 1974).

By looking at both the mass level and the elite level, a fourfold typology of democratic regimes was developed, as shown in Fig. 1. The situation of a homogeneous society and competing elites is most conducive to stable democracy. The United States and the United Kingdom serve as examples of such ‘centripetal democracy.’ One might argue that the combination of social homogeneity and elite coop-eration guarantees stability even more, but the lack of democratic choice in such a ‘depoliticized democracy’ is likely to lead to antisystem opposition. The situation that is most dangerous for stable democracy is where society is divided deeply and the leaders of the social segments compete. Classic examples of this ‘centrifugal democracy’ are Weimar Germany and the French Fourth Republic. Consociational democracy represents the situation in which deep social divisions are prevented from destabilizing democracy by elite cooperation.

Consociationalism Research Paper

The list of countries that are claimed to be or to have been consociational democracies gradually has expanded and now includes Austria (1945–66), Belgium (from 1918), Canada (1840–67), Colombia (1958–74), Cyprus (1960 and 1963), Czechoslovakia (1989–1993), India (1947 to the late 1960s), Lebanon (1943–75 and after 1989), Luxembourg, Malaysia (1955–1969 and since 1971), The Netherlands (1917–67), and Switzerland (since 1943), with contemporary Canada and Israel being classified as semiconsociational. The European Union has also been described as consociational. As can be seen from the dates, consociationalism has disappeared in many cases, either because it failed (often because of international interference: Lebanon, Cyprus) or because it was so successful in accommodating the social cleavages that it rendered itself superfluous (e.g., in Austria and the Netherlands). Because of the latter cases, consociationalism is sometimes seen as a transitional phase.

Generalizing from such case studies, the theory of consociational democracy has been developed (e.g., Nordlinger 1972, Lijphart 1977). Lijphart’s contribution has been so influential that consociationalism often is equated with his work. He distinguishes four characteristics, each of which should be present for a country to be classified as consociational: (a) government by grand coalition (i.e., including representatives of all social segments); (b) segmental autonomy (federal arrangements in case of geographical con-centration of subcultures, or sub-cultural autonomy with regard to schools, etc; (c) proportionality in the electoral system, but also with regard to civil service appointments, distribution of public funds for schools, etc; and (d) minority veto (sometimes in the form of qualified majority requirements for certain types of legislation).

In a later offshoot of consociationalism, Lijphart elaborated a distinction between majoritarian democracy, which is characterized by 10 institutional features that concentrate power in the hands of the majority, and consensus democracy, which is characterized by an identical number of features that make decision-making as inclusive of all relevant parties or groups as possible (Lijphart 1999). Although the characteristics of consociational democracy are primarily behavioral whereas the characteristics of consensus democracy are largely institutional, and although consociationalism is also defined by the existence of deep social cleavages, both concepts clearly overlap and many consociational democracies are also classified as consensus democracies.

2. The Consociational Prescription

Consociational engineering is recommended as the only viable option for deeply divided countries that seek to achieve or maintain stable democracy. The two cases in which this advice appears to have been influential are Northern Ireland and South Africa (for the recommendations in South Africa, see Lijphart 1985). The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which was endorsed by referendums in North-ern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, contains several clearly consociational characteristics (dual premier-ship, a proportional electoral system (STV), requirements for ‘parallel consent’ in the legislature, etc.). In South Africa, the transition from apartheid was facilitated by a consociational interim constitution (including a government of national unity and an electoral system of proportional representation), but in the constitution of 1996 few consociational elements remain.

The prescriptive use of consociationalism has sparked a debate on the conditions that are favorable and unfavorable to the successful adoption of a consociational solution. First, it is more likely that elites refrain from intersegmental competition if they perceive the benefits of competition to be outweighed by its costs. This is the case when no social segment has a majority or can entertain any hope of achieving a majority. However, even if one segment has a (near) majority, its leaders may still prefer to share power with the minority if that minority has inflicted casualties or economic damage on the majority or can credibly threaten to do so, or if the minority’s support is indispensable to face an external threat (cf. Nord-linger 1972, pp. 42–53). Second, it is more likely that a consociational solution succeeds when followers agree with their leaders’ choice of intersegmental cooperation, or when the elites are relatively immune from intrasegmental competition. The latter is the case when elites control the mass media, or when dense networks of subcultural organizations or patron-client networks make it difficult for competitors to challenge the incumbent elites (cf. Nordlinger 1972, pp. 78–87).

Some other factors that are mentioned as favorable to the emergence of consociationalism are less self-evident (social segments of equal size, a small country, geographical concentration of segments, etc.; cf. Lijphart 1985, pp. 119–28). An important remaining question is whether some social cleavages are more amenable to elite accommodation than others. In view of consociationalism’s potential for existing deeply divided countries, the question whether ethnic cleavages constitute a favorable or an unfavorable condition is of particular relevance (e.g., Barry 1975, pp. 502–3).

3. Critiques Of Consociationalism

The central tenet of consociationalism (i.e., that political stability need not be safeguarded by cross-cutting cleavages at the mass level, but can also be maintained by intersegmental elite cooperation) has gone relatively unchallenged. In addition to controversy over favorable and unfavorable factors, most of the criticisms that have been passed on con-sociationalism are directed at the classification of some countries as consociational democracies, and at the way in which key concepts have been defined and operationalized, in particular by Lijphart (e.g., Barry 1975, Halpern 1986, Lustick 1997. For Lijphart’s reaction to most criticisms raised until then, see Lijphart 1985, pp. 83–117).

The country whose consociational credentials have been called into question most is Switzerland (e.g., Barry 1975). The debate centers on the question whether Swiss society is deeply divided, as religious and class cleavages cross-cut linguistic divisions, and as the linguistic segments had very few ambitions that brought them into conflict with one another.

Such controversies, it is argued, arise from the vagueness and elasticity with which many of the key concepts of consociationalism such as segmentation are defined (e.g., Halpern 1986). For example, one of consociationalism’s four characteristics, grand coalition, includes not only all-party governments (as in Switzerland), but also oversized coalitions, all-party advisory commissions, joining forces in a catch-all party (e.g., India’s Congress Party), or ‘diachronic coalitions’ in which power rotates, as in Colombia between 1958 and 1974. These different mechanisms can still be seen as functional equivalents that all facilitate elite cooperation, however. A more import- ant problem is that elites are unlikely to cooperate all the time, on all issues, and in all arenas. Even in consociational democracies, elites tend to compete in elections, for example. Any classification of elite behavior as adversarial or coalescent therefore must rest on an often-impressionistic aggregation of elite behavior across issues and arenas.

Finally, the democratic quality of consociationalism is sometimes impugned because of the predominance of elites and the absence of opposition. From the perspective of democracy as a device to keep elites accountable and responsive to the masses, this is a pertinent criticism. However, in the deeply divided societies for which consociationalism offers a solution, the most salient distinction is not between elites and masses, but between social segments of a more or less ascriptive nature. In that situation democracy may be better served with a relative emphasis on inclusiveness, and in that respect consociational democracy (and consensus democracy) outperforms adversarial or majoritarian democracy.


  1. Barry B 1975 Review article: Political accommodation and consociational democracy. British Journal of Political Science 5: 477–505
  2. Halpern S M 1986 The disorderly universe of consociational democracy. West European Politics 9: 181–97
  3. Lehmbruch G 1974 A non-competitive pattern of conflict management in liberal democracies: The case of Switzerland, Austria and Lebanon. In: McRae K D (ed.) Consociational Democracy: Political Accommodation in Segmented Societies. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto
  4. Lijphart A 1969 Consociational democracy. World Politics 21: 207–25
  5. Lijphart A 1975 The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in The Netherlands, 2nd edn. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  6. Lijphart A 1977 Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Explanation. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  7. Lijphart A 1985 Power-sharing in South Africa. Institute of International Aff University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  8. Lijphart A 1999 Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  9. Lustick I S 1997 Lijphart, Lakatos, and consociationalism. World Politics 50: 88–117
  10. Nordlinger E A 1972 Conflict Regulation in Divided Societies. Center for International Aff Harvard University, Cam-bridge, MA
  11. Steiner J 1974 Amicable Agreement versus Majority Rule: Conflict Resolution in Switzerland. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC
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