Studies 08 March, 2018

On the Development of the Concept of Consociational Democracy and its Adequacy for Resolving Sectarian Conflicts

Northern Ireland and Lebanon as Case Studies


Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and a member of its Executive Board. A prominent researcher and writer, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works. He was Professor of Philosophy and History of Political Thought at Birzeit University, from 1986 to 1996. He also co-founded Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, and Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research. Bishara was the principal founder of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), a Palestinian-Arab party inside the Green Line, which supports democratic values irrespective of religious, ethnic or national identity. For four consecutive session, from 1996-2007, he represented his party as an elected member of parliament. In 2007, Bishara was persecuted for his political positions at the hands of the Israeli authorities, and currently resides in Qatar. He is the recipient of the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award in 2003.

This paper explores the theoretical model behind the concept of “consociational democracy”, beginning with its roots in the Austrian Marxist tradition to its elaboration in 1969 by the Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart. Lijphart’s work was part of his wider critique of Gabriel Almond’s categorization of Western political systems. This study presents a structural criticism of the term “consociational democracy” and its usage, arguing that the practice of "consociational democracy" was born of pragmatic policies before maturing into a theoretical model. It further argues that the subsequent contributions by Lijphart were an extrapolation from a set of country case studies that lack an underlying "theory" and that “power sharing” does not necessarily lead to democratization. The study thus draws up several theoretical observations that help distinguish “consociationalism” from “consociational democracy”. Finally, the paper contrasts the suitability of this theoretical model in the case of Northern Ireland and Lebanon.

To read the full text of this paper as a PDF, click here or on the link above. This paper was originally published in the January, 2018 edition of  Siyasat Arabiya, the ACRPS' journal devoted to political science and strategic studies.