Journal Essay

Lebanon's Electoral System: Is Reform Possible?

Benjamin MacQueen

Fall 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 3

Dr. MacQueen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. This work was supported by the Australian Research Council [DP130100933].

Lebanese politics is often, if not exclusively, articulated through the concept of "consociational" democracy. While most observers also agree that this system has been inadequate in containing instability and violence, there is little questioning of its basis. Arguments fall into two categories: either the country is seen as prone to instability and conflict because the consociational model doesn't work well enough, or the consociational model itself is flawed. I argue that the consociational model is not, and has not historically been, an appropriate analytical guide to understanding Lebanese politics. That is, where consociationalism might serve as an aspiration, it provides minimal utility in analyzing and understanding the dynamics of Lebanese politics. Specifically, this article will highlight how key features of consociationalism are missing in Lebanon; namely, institutional constraints on elite decision making, a proportional electoral system, severe regulation of and exclusion from political participation for the majority of the population, and dysfunctional government and coalition structures. This can be most starkly seen in the debate over electoral-law reform. An analysis of the inertia surrounding political reform in Lebanon, typified by failed efforts at reforming the electoral system, reveals a subtle but critical mutual dependency between political elites and the confessional system in which they operate and which sustains their dominance.

Lebanese politics does not represent a system that maintains segmentation to ensure the participation of all groups in order to maintain a modicum of stability and cooperation (consociationalism). It is rather a system that guarantees political power to a fixed group of elites who actively work to exclude challenges to their communal domination or to the system that maintains it. This is a political environment characterized by restriction, not openness. As such, the analytical utility in assessing the Lebanese political system as a partial, incomplete or even faulty model of consociational democracy needs to be questioned. Certainly, Lebanon possesses democratic institutions. However, these institutions grant only a modicum of participation and, critically, are resistant to reform efforts that may expand political participation.


Consociational democracy is part of a family of approaches to power sharing in transitional societies, a model of governance aimed at managing ethnic, sectarian and other potentially conflicting allegiances within a single state structure.1 It focuses on consensus building among elite representatives of these groups, managed through negotiations, bargaining and a tailored set of political institutions. For its chief architect, Arend Lijphart, the consociational democratic model is an effort to both identify how power-sharing arrangements within divided societies work and to provide guidance in transforming fragmented political societies into stable, inclusive democracies.2 Lijphart's rationale rests on a view that conventional, majoritarian, democratic models are not appropriate for societies characterized by sharp cleavages, as these systems work to amplify social and political divisions. Instead, there are many societies where pluralist and segmented elites operate through formal power-sharing political institutions, whether based on consociation or consensus.3

This form of democracy crystallizes around four features. First, governments are formed on the basis of grand coalitions comprising many parties that represent divergent sectarian interests and backgrounds. Second, the composite sectarian groups have the right to a mutual veto over decision-making processes, where the potential for decision-making inertia is offset by the desire of sectarian elites to ensure the survival of the system. Third, parliamentarians are elected according to proportional representation as a way to ensure the maximum representation of different communities. This allows for highly concentrated, often confidential, decision-making processes that assist in facilitating compromise in a fragmented political environment. Fourth, there are high degrees of autonomy among groups in areas such as education, culture and, potentially, civil law. Arrangements such as these have been implemented in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Malaysia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and recently in Macedonia, Iraq and Fiji in an effort to implement a form of "centralized national bargaining" to "turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy."4 That is, elites can exercize a degree of agency that enables them to overcome the strong tendency toward instability or decision-making inertia characteristic of divided societies. This agency requires an awareness of the fragilities of the system, a commitment to the system's survival, an ability to negotiate across ethnic, sectarian or other cleavages, and an ability to accommodate demands of all groups where elite accommodation is essential to the proper functioning not only of the system but of a regulated democracy.5

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