Confessing the Sins of Consociationalism: Democracy in Lebanon

Lebanon has been debating the creation of a new electoral system since the end of its civil war in 1990, but with new elections scheduled for 2014, the country needs to reach a decision on how it plans to reform group representation, and fast. According to groups such as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, democracies will ‘inevitably’ need to adapt to changing circumstances,[i] but Lebanon, with its long history of violent sectarian conflict and religious diversity, has not made much headway.

Image courtesy of Ramsey Nasser, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Ramsey Nasser, © 2011, some rights reserved.

The current Lebanese constitution remains similar to the informal arrangement made upon independence from France in the 1943 National Pact. In an attempt to ensure cooperation and peaceful relations between its Muslim and Christian communities, each major sect was guaranteed certain positions in government: the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker a Shi’a Muslim. The distribution of parliamentary seats is also organised along confessional lines. While it initially favoured Christians, the 1989 Ta’if Agreement that ended the 1975-1990 civil war saw parliamentary representation split fifty-fifty between each group and the powers of the president lessened.

Confessionalism criss-crosses both legislative and other governmental offices in Lebanon and is a form of consociational democracy. One of the foremost proponents of consociationalism, Arend J. Lijphart, argues that such systems have participation and inclusion as their guiding principles, making them ideal for deeply divided societies. However, despite the creation of power-sharing coalitions, mutual vetoes, and proportionality, the form of consociationalism currently practiced in Lebanon is flawed and has been unable to contain internal violence. It seems unlikely that consociationalism can continue to survive.

The Ta’if Agreement stipulated that in order to achieve a lasting peace, Lebanon would have to move away from sectarian politics[ii]. Despite this, religious affiliation remains firmly entrenched in Lebanese politics. While the 2009 legislative elections saw loose coalitions formed by both Muslims and Christians (the March 14 Alliance bloc contained more Sunni MPs than the March 8 Alliance led by Shi’a parties like Hezbollah), those in power are reluctant to try and implement changes, as it may see them lose current political influence.

It can be seen as a system that was implemented to prevent a repeat of civil war, but this has rendered the government of Lebanon relatively weak and inefficient. Following the withdrawal of the opposition March 8 Alliance’s support from the government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri in 2011, Lebanon has experienced political deadlock. There have been frequent periods of protracted negotiation between Lebanese political parties, but this has resolved few long-standing problems in the country[iii]. The resignation of Najib Mikati as prime minister in 2013 has only contributed to the difficulties of governing the country.

Here lies a dilemma. Confessionalism in Lebanon seeks to prevent violence, but the political instability it has produced has left it unable to reign-in violence, such as Hezbollah’s military action in 2008, when it seized sections of western Beirut in reaction to government restrictions on its war-fighting capabilities[iv]. Twin car bombings in August targeting Sunni Mosques, the powerlessness of the army to restrain Hezbollah, and the continued lack of disarmament on the part of that group and other militias are signs that consociationalism has not delivered fully on its promise of reducing violence. A new system must be effective at doing more to accommodate group interests in a more secular fashion to prevent the emergence of a deadlier sectarian conflict, particularly one along Shi’a and Sunni lines.

Another significant stumbling block to the survival of consociationalism besides inefficiency and weakness also relates to its current modus operandi. Under the Ta’if Agreement, the distribution of seats is allocated proportionally in relation to the size of each religious group in the population. When it comes to politics in Lebanon, demographics count. At present there are seventeen officially recognised religious sects in modern Lebanon. Muslims constitute around fifty-nine percent of the country’s population with Shiites and Sunnis both constituting twenty-eight percent each, with the Druze constituting six percent. The Christian population comprises roughly thirty-nine percent of Lebanese. Twenty-two percent are Maronites, eight percent are Greek Orthodox, and another four percent are Catholic. The problem is that there has been no national census since 1932, so the current numbers are estimates based on a variety of reports[v]. This also means that the distribution of power under the consociational system may not actually reflect changes in demographics– a considerable flaw for a system intended to be proportional.

The problem of demographics is particularly significant when it comes to sectarian differences between Sunni and Shi’a groups, as the Muslim population has increased while the number of Christians has declined. The lack of correlation between population movement and representation is best reflected in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where the Shi’a population has steadily grown since the civil war, but has seen little representation follow from this. Political deprivation of certain religious groups has been one of the driving forces behind conflict in Lebanon, and the deprivation is caused by the confessional distribution of seats, as MPs may not represent or serve sizeable portions of the population from these particular religious affiliations[vi].

Since the fixed nature of Lebanese confessionalism will render it increasingly unrepresentative of religious groups that are increasing in size, alternatives are needed. The most recent move towards a combination of a proportional voting system, redrawn constituencies, and strong guaranteed rights has so far been prevented from passing into law. Reform is amongst the victims of the sectarian interests enshrined in parliament by its adherence to consociationalism[vii].

If Lebanon is to make concrete progress in building a less conflicted society and check the problem of sectarian violence effectively, it needs a better solution than consociationalism. This much is recognised by the Ta’if Agreement, and as time goes on, the flaws of confessionalism become increasingly salient. While the alternatives are not yet fully formed, it is clear that Lebanon must adapt to the changing demographics of its polity and strengthen the effectiveness of government while ensuring the rights of its constituent religious groups.



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