Legislature’s Role in Lebanese Consociational Democracy

This paper tackles a subject that has not been thoroughly researched in the study of consociationalism and political accommodation in plural societies: the role of Legislature in Lebanese consociational democracy.

Legislature’s Role in Lebanese Consociational Democracy. The policy times


Consociational democracy is a system of government in plural societies which was developed to reconcile societal fragmentation along religious, ethnic, racial or regional lines. It was founded to establish stable and sustainable democracy, and to avoid violence in states of diverse population. Being a plural society with a relatively stable form of government (except for the years of civil war and those of regional upheavals), Lebanon’s political system has been commonly described as consociational democracy. As such consociational characteristics should be materialized in the Lebanese political institutions of the system. The government (the executive) is the most obvious of such institutions; and the Lebanese cabinet does reflect, to a certain extent, consociational characteristics, as commonly agreed to. This paper will examine whether the Lebanese legislative authority—the legislature is, per se, a consociational institution, and the extent to which it embodies the four features of grand coalition (elite accommodation), mutual veto, proportionality of representation and segmental autonomy, as detailed in ArendLijphart’sconsociational Theory.

Research Area

The research delves into theory of consociationalism in Lebanon as a plural society. It studies the reflection of consociational characteristics in Lebanese system, particularly in the legislative authority.

This paper tackles a subject that has not been thoroughly researched in the study of consociationalism and political accommodation in plural societies: the role of Legislature in Lebanese consociational democracy.

Although the characteristics of consociational democracy do not include a specific dimension for legislature, yet being the mother of all constitutional institutions, the reflection of consociational democracy in any body of the political system should have a link—direct or indirect—to the legislative authority.


The Lebanese legislative and executive System of governance, since independence and until today, has been developed along the lines of this consociational model, and has been influenced by the political, security, social and economic environment at domestic, regional and international levels. In this paper, the writer attempts to elucidate and explain how the Lebanese legislative authority, as mother of all political institutions, reflects consociational characteristics as stipulated in Consociational theory, in the form of grand coalition (elite accommodation), mutual veto, proportionality and autonomy.


The leading question in this paper is whether representation and accommodation inside consociational legislature are, or can be, functional equivalents of elite-accommodation between segmental parties in prototypical consociational democracies as explained by Lijphart’s theory. The outcome of this investigation should provide indications about the prospects and conditions for accommodation of segmental differences within a consociational legislature. Other questions are:

  1. Is the Lebanese legislative authority—the legislature, per se, a consociational institution?
  2. Does the Lebanese legislature embodies the four features of grand coalition (elite accommodation), mutual veto, proportionality of representation and segmental autonomy?
  3. What role does the legislature play in Lebanese consociational democracy?

Methodology of paper and methods of research

This paper delves into both the quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitatively, it reviews and analyses the theory of consociationalism and various other theories on governance, and compares them with the Lebanese practices so far, particularly the legislature. Qualitatively, it reviews the Lebanese constitution and amendments made to it, National Pact and Taif Agreement in order to cope with developments in Lebanon and the consociational model.

Structure and Organization of the Paper

Consociationalism is a system of government in plural societies which aims to instate a special form of democracy based mainly on power sharing among the diverse groups of the state, for the goal of maintaining public security and political stability, and contributing to nation building.

For consociationalism to regulate the political system of a certain state, some features and favorable conditions must exist in that state: the society comprises diverse groups (distinct ethnic, religious, political, national or linguistic groups); the system adapts democracy as a form of government; and elites from different social groups share power, in the form of elite cooperation or accommodation, while allocating these groups collective rights.  In this sense, although consociationalism is often viewed as synonymous with power-sharing, yet it is technically only one form of power-sharing.  Based on a number of factors, it takes different forms in different countries.  When consociationalism is organised along religious confessional lines, it is known as confessionalism, as is the case in Lebanon.

Consociational democracy, therefore, was developed to reconcile societal fragmentation along religious, ethnic, racial or regional lines.  It was founded to establish stable and sustainable democracy, and to avoid violence in states of diverse population.  Thus, consociationalism contrasts profoundly with majority-rule democracy (majoritarianism).

The raison d’être of consociationalism lies in the fact that profound social cleavages are generally thought of as obstacles to the establishment of stable democratic systems.  To overcome these obstacles, the elitegroups coordinate in order to avoid conflict and come to a common ground of understanding in governing the state, through an agreed-upon power-sharing arrangement.  An essential component of consociationalism is elite accommodation, which is a form of collaboration between the leaders of different communities.  Elite accommodation is based on the notion that elites from opposing factions or groups in society are capable of reaching accommodation in the face of a lack of consensus at the societal level[1].  In other words, contrary to the wishes or sentiments of their own followers, leaders will strike agreements, often quietly or in secret, in order to preserve the overall stability of the system.

Consociationalism was developed by political scientist ArendLijphart (1969, 1975, 1977) as a theory of political stability in plural societies.  Lijphart argues that democracy and political stability are possible in plural societies if elites engage in accommodative behavior that circumvents social cleavages in mutual understandings of power sharing.  The political features of consociational democracy, according to Lijphart, are[2]:

  • Government by grand coalition of the political leaders of all significant segments of the plural society.
  • Mutual veto as a protection of vital minority interests.
  • Proportionality as the principal standard of political and other public services representation.
  • A high degree of autonomy for each segment to run its own internal affairs.

This research tackles a subject that has not been thoroughly researched in the study of consociationalism and political accommodation in plural societies: the role of Legislature in Lebanese consociational democracy.  Although the characteristics of consociational democracy do not include a specific dimension for legislature, yet being the mother of all constitutional institutions, the reflection of consociational democracy in any body of the political system should have a link—direct or indirect—to the legislative authority.

The research examines whether and how Lebanese legislature meets consociational features and achieves political accommodation of societal differences.  It does so by analyzing the process and structure of accommodation and representation inside the legislative authority (Lebanese Parliament or Chamber of Deputies) and within the context of consociational elements in the political system in general.  The leading question is whether representation and accommodation inside consociational legislature are, or can be, functional equivalents of elite-accommodation between segmental parties in prototypical consociational democracies as explained by Lijphart’s theory.  The outcome of this investigation should provide indications about the prospects and conditions for accommodation of segmental differences within a consociational legislature.

Moreover, this study will deal with consociational democracy as a normative model that is of special importance to the plural societies of the Middle East, Lebanon in particular.  However, since Liphart’s features of consociationalism are not manifested directly in the legislative authority, it would be hard to gauge the normativity of consociationalism in the Lebanese parliament.  As an alternative, the functions and role of Lebanese Chamber of Deputies (legislature) will be discussed and examined of any consociational elements embodied in them.  Other constitutional institution, namely the government, will serve as the basis of comparison, and Lijphart’s characteristics will be the yardstick against which consociational legislative features can be compared.

Being a plural society with a relatively stable form of government (except for the years of civil war and those of regional upheavals), Lebanon’s political system has been commonly described as consociational democracy.  If and when consociational democracy is claimed to exist in a political system, then its characteristics should be materialized in the political institutions of the system; i.e., consociational democracy is conducive to consociational political institutions.  The government (the executive) is the most obvious of such institutions, and the Lebanese cabinet does reflect, to a certain extent, consociational characteristics as commonly agreed to.  The question, however, remains whether the Lebanese legislative authority—the legislature is, per se, a consociational institution.  Does the Lebanese legislature embodies the four features of grand coalition (elite accommodation), mutual veto, proportionality of representation and segmental autonomy? And what role does the legislature play in Lebanese consociational democracy?

In this research I detailed the consociational features in the composition, functions and roles of the political institutions in the Kaymakam system and the Mutasarrifate system that followed it, both under the Ottoman rule.  I also discussed the controversial participation of Lebanese religious sects in the French mandate institutions, the scope and limits of this participation which combined reflect consociational features in the system, and whose effect is still so much visible in today’s governance process and political bodies.  Similarly, post-independence consociational dimensions are explained and criticized, with a special focus on the 1943 National Pact and the 1989 Taif Agreement which has been by far the most consociational reference in the history of Lebanon.

Consociationalism in the Lebanese System

For years, Lebanon has been tailoring a special form of democracy, a consensus democracy that accommodates the different religions and sects in order to preserve its national unity.  The pluralistic structure of the Lebanese society has paved the way for a smooth democratization process and has prohibited authoritarian regimes to take its toll on the country.  That process was nothing but the consociational form of governance.

Before Lebanon’s independence, both the Ottomans and the French resorted to special arrangements to govern Mount Lebanon, the core of the Lebanon of today.  Their arrangements always comprised participation of all segments of the Lebanese society in the ruling process.  This meant the representation of all religious confessions in the political institutions that the occupier devised to govern pre-independent Lebanon.

After independence, the Lebanese constitution of 1926, and its amendments, continued to be in force (it is actually still in force today, with the major amendments executed in accordance to the Taif Agreement).  The main feature of the constitution, around which the political life of Lebanon has since revolved, is the participation of the various religious communities in running the affairs of the state and the representation of these communities in the formation of government, the selection of the legislature and in public employment.  This feature, as explained, constitutes the backbone of consociationalism.

The independence itself was shaped by the famous National Pact of 1943, which is an unwritten agreement between Lebanon’s first President (a Maronite Christian) and first Prime Minister (a Sunni Muslim).  The Pact that aimed to alleviate Christians’ fear of being dominated by the Muslims, and the Muslims’ fear of Western hegemony, was another medium of Lebanese consociationalism through which main religious factions agreed on power sharing.

The National Pact that laid the basic political foundations of consociationalism was unable to cope with the profound changes in the demographics of Lebanon and the political upheaval in the region.  After the civil war, there was a need for a new context of common existence among the societal components, hence the Taif Agreement came into life.  This accord that ended the war in Lebanon strengthened the notion of consociational democracy and tried to institutionalize it.

As a consequence, this study will mainly discuss the embodiment of consociational characteristics in Lebanon’s legislature and the extent to which the legislative authority exemplifies consociational theory in three sections, each tackles a historic phase.  The first discusses the period before Lebanon’s independence; the second, the period after the independence up to Taif Agreement that was a decisive factor in the consociational form of democracy in Lebanon; and the third section discusses the consociational characteristics featured by Taif charter and their reflection on the constitutional institutions, particularly the legislature.

A-  Consociationalism in Lebanon before Independence

In this section I will look into the institutions established by the Ottoman rulers in their two political regimes devised for Mount Lebanon (the core entity of today’s Lebanon), the Kaymakamate and the Mutasarrifate, and those established by the French Mandate after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.  I will check how each of Lijphart’s four consociational characteristics was reflected in these institutions, particularly the legislative body.

Grand Coalition

How has grand coalition, the first feature of consociational democracy, been reflected in the legislative authority of Lebanon since the Ottoman rule and until Independence?

With the establishment of two kaymakamates System, a northern mostly Christian-populated district and a southern Druze-populated district were created.  A mixed representative council in each Kaymakamate was also established, and constituted a medium for coalition of societal segments.  These councils were tasked with assisting in the administration of their areas.  In turn, the council was composed of two assemblies or chambers: the first was the Assembly of Advisors which was made up of the deputy Kaymakam and one member from each of the six main sects (Sunnis, Druze, Maronites, Roman Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Shiites).  This council acted as legislative authority in the respective district.  The second was the Council of Judges, made up of one judge from each sect, except for the Shiite sect, whereby their legal affairs were decided in accordance with Sunni Sharia court rulings of the Hanafi sect.  This council was tasked with looking into the law suits brought to it by the Kaymakam.

After the utter failure of the Kaymakam System, a new system was devised in 1861, by RèglementOrganique.  With this organic act, Mount Lebanon became a semi-autonomous Mutasarrifate under a non-Lebanese Christian Mutasarrif (governor) appointed by the Ottoman Sultan, with the approval of the European powers.  The Mutasarrif was to be assisted by “The Greatest Administrative Council” composed of twelve members from the various religious communities in Lebanon.  Each of the six religious groups comprising Lebanon (Maronites, Druze, Sunni, Shi’a, Greek Orthodox and Catholics) elected two members to the council.

The 1861 protocol also stipulated the establishment of a Council of Sects’ Representatives, whereby “each element of the Mountain would be represented by a representative appointed by the elders and dignitaries of each sect”[3].  This council comprised six individuals, each representing one of the six main sects (a sort of senate).  Here again the body acting as legislative authority in the new system reflected the consociational feature of grand coalition.

Nevertheless, the 1864 amendments cancelled the Council of Sects’ Representatives, while the Greater Council continued to be composed of twelve members but based on the following shares: four Maronites, three Druze, two Roman Orthodox Christians, one Muslim Sunni, and one Shiite.

When Mount Lebanon was put under direct Ottoman rule with the advent of World War I, the Administrative Council was dissolved and a new council was established, the members of which were appointed by the military ruler.  It is important to note that in spite of all the exceptional circumstances that were taking place at that stage, the Ottoman ruler still took into consideration the same proportionate sectarian distributions that had existed in the dissolved council.  Is it possible that sectarian considerations were stronger than all of the emergency and exceptional circumstances imposed by a global war?

The French Mandate kept the formation of the legislative body delicately comprising all the major sects in the “State of Greater Lebanon”, as of September 1920.  The French rulers established a council made up of 15 members and was named “the Administrative Committee for Greater Lebanon”.  The High Commissioner was responsible for appointing these 15 members from, once again, amongst the six main sects, and based on the following shares: six Maronites, three Orthodox Christians, two Sunni Muslims, two Shiite Muslims, one Druze, and one Catholic Christian.  Similarly, the first and second Representative Councils under the French Mandate were also composed of same proportional numbers of sects’ representatives.

The first constitution of Lebanon which was enacted in 1926 assigned the legislative authority to two bodies: the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.  The senate was made up of 16 members distributed amongst the sects as follows: 5 Maronites, 3 Sunnis, 3 Shiites, 2 Orthodox, 1 Catholic, 1 Druze and 1 minorities.  The Chamber of Deputies was the new title of the same old Council of Deputies (the second representative council) with the same composition and functions.

Thus, from all the examples above, it is clear that the first principle of consociationalism, the grand coalition, was secured by both occupiers who recognized the importance of religion in the life of the Lebanese of those eras, and the necessity for each sect, as independent entity which does not necessarily lie in the hierarchical structure of the state, to have its say in running the affairs of; i.e., governing, Mount Lebanon.  Hence, every single institution, be it legislative, executive, representative, judicial, administrative, auditory or advisory, was composed of members who belonged to the different components of the society.  This practice, which was always categorized under the titles of ‘mutual existence’ and ‘power sharing’, was the typification of today’s grand coalition characteristic of consociationalism.  It’s noteworthy that although the communal representation was reflected in most of the political institutions of the system, it was particularly the legislature that the religious sects were definitely and delicately represented without any outage.

It is also significant to mention, here, that the foreign rulers of Lebanon found that the ideal way to guarantee the participation of sectarian communities was through their respective leaders, the elites.  Those elites—most of them were feudalists, landlords and heirs of prominent tribes and families—were so powerful and in control of their respective communities that the occupier sought their satisfaction by maintaining their privileges and allocating them with some of the spoils of ruling power, the most significant of which is their continuous representation in the representative and legislative authorities.  For the foreign rulers, dealing with a few elites was an easier task than seeking the contentment of the mass.

The occupier would appoint the elites themselves (leaders of communities) to the posts reserved to their respective groups.  Since those leaders were mostly at a high level of education, knowledge and social awareness, they would communicate with each other positively for the interest of the Mountain and its inhabitants.  In fact, the occupier initially forced the leaders to come to a common ground of understanding, at least on certain matters that were considered important for the foreign rulers to run the affairs of Mount Lebanon (mainly financial and administrative issues—as politics was exclusively reserved to the occupier).  At a later stage, however, the leaders’ cooperation became a normal practice; their existence in the same entity and concurrent presence at the different meetings helped them establish strong relations among each other.  Thus, Lebanese elites of divergent factions in the society proved their ability to collaborate and reach mutual agreement on the basics of the Mountain governance despite the multiple divisions in opinions and orientations at the societal level.  Hence, elite accommodation feature was established and became part of the practice of consociational democracy in Lebanon.

Mutual Veto

As to the second characteristic of consociationalism, mutual veto, which is meant to protect the interests of minorities, it was manifested in two different forms during the Ottoman rule and the French mandate.  The first was through an external actor on behalf of the minority.  The occupier reserved the right to veto any decision taken by the representative or legislative authority that represented the people of Mount Lebanon.  Inasmuch as this veto exemplified the tyranny of the occupier who would revoke any decision that did not conform their policy, it, at the same time, typified the mutual veto feature of consociationalism.  The least concern of the foreign rulers was the interest and rights of a certain minority; they were only maintaining the interests of their country, at least by vetoing any decision that might trouble their rule by pitting one confession against the other.  The same ruler who used veto one time ostensibly in favour of one faction might use it another time, ostensibly too, in favour of another faction.  The result would look as if each religious faction owe the right to use the veto.

Under this form of exemplifying veto feature, which is executed by foreign actors, was the right given to the committee of representatives of the five big European countries to sanction the decisions of the Ottoman ruler of Mount Lebanon, as well as sanctioning basic laws issued by him or drafted by the Representative Council of the mountain[4].  The committee decisions were taken by consensus which automatically means a veto power to each member.  This was done and justified under the pretext of defending the rights of Lebanon’s minorities, and mainly by monitoring the legislative work.

The second form of mutual veto as one of the four characteristics of consociationalism in Lebanon is reflected by majority voting.  The logic behind majority voting, which is seen as a form of mutual veto to guarantee minority rights, is explained by the fact that the political stakes are often high in plural societies; therefore, a grand coalition is more appropriate than the classic government-versus-opposition pattern.  In homogenous societies and under typical democratic systems where a classic form of ruling-versus-opposition parties prevails, the majority and minority are not very far apart, and consequently majority rule works well.  But, in plural societies where cleavages between societal communities are grave, then almost all decisions involve high stakes, and strict majority rule would risk antagonizing minority groups and places serious strain on the system.  The dilemma of favouring either consensus or majority rule is solved in most democratic constitutions by prescribing majority rule for the normal transaction of business when the stakes are presumably not too high, and extraordinary majorities for the most vital decisions, such as for adopting or amending constitutions.  They just follow Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s advice that “the more grave and important the questions discussed, the nearer should the opinion that is to prevail approach unanimity.”[5]

The voting system within legislative authorities during the Ottoman and French rules was mostly executed by accord and simple majority.  Accord is tantamount to unanimity which itself includes veto feature.  On the other hand, simple majority reflects majority-versus-minority system which negates the veto feature in consociational democracy.  At all rates, the voting system within the legislatures of the occupation era was not significant by itself, as it was revoked, modified, adopted or neglected by the ruler, which, as explained above, was a typification of veto feature of Lijphartconsociationalism.


As I have pointed out in discussing grand coalition, the composition of modern-day Lebanese legislature has, since its inception, always included representatives of all religious factions in Lebanon.  Significantly, the representation was not random or haphazard; it was, on the contrary, well studied and proportionate.  This proportionality, however, did not follow a single pattern; it developed from parity; i.e., equal number of representatives for each sect regardless of the number of their followers, to proportionality based on the number of the sect or proportionality relative to the influence or political sway of the sect.

It has to be mentioned here that the shifting of the representation formula from parity to proportionality is regarded as a historic amendment and one of the main reasons for consolidating the sectarian quota scheme within the political system of Lebanon, especially in the legislative authority.  It is true that the sects had all been represented in the system of government; however, it was an equally split representation regardless of the sects’ respective influence or numbers, which meant respecting their rights and guaranteeing their representation.  On the contrary, proportional representation (whether numerical-based or influence-based) meant the distribution of the spoils of power amongst the sects was based on their importance.  This lead to the dominance of one sect over the others, which planted the seeds of sectarian politics; i.e., confessionalism, in Lebanon and weakened patriotic loyalty.


Segmental autonomy was not only another strong consociational feature of Lebanese democracy, throughout all historical phases we discussed, but a sacred factor that was respected and revered as the aim of all other factors of consociationalism.  The presence of religious communities is the reason for adopting this form of governance; therefore, maintaining the privacy and independent entity of these communities should be the core concept of consociational democracy.  This is particularly true because “national integration requires the creation of a cultural-ideological consensus of a degree of comprehensiveness that has not yet been seen in these [developing] countries”[6].

The Lebanese pattern of segmental autonomy has its roots in the “millet” system of the Ottoman Empire: the minority religious communities were accorded an autonomous status compatible with Islamic laws that guarantees their safety, independent entity, freedom of exercising their spiritual rights and autonomy in organizing religious affairs of their followers[7].  The French occupation followed suit of the same pattern with even wider jurisdiction and freedoms.  Significant was the French mandate encouragement of missionary schools and colleges—mainly French and, to a lesser degree in the beginning, British and American—which were specified for a certain religious community, fortifying educational independence and segmental autonomy in general.

B- Consociationalism as Featured in the National Pact

The informal and unwritten National Pact was a compromise between two main religious segments which tried to define the national identity of the Lebanese and design a formula of power sharing among all factions of the plural society of Lebanon.  The written document that organized the political life was the same as the 1926 constitution which continued to be in force.  But the political life praxis was modified in line with the provisions of the National Pact.

The historic accord formalized consociational grand coalition in the form of allocating top system’s political positions to the major sects.  Thus, it reserved the presidency to a Maronite Christian, the prime ministership to a Sunni Muslim, the speakership of parliament to a Shi’ite Muslim, and deputy speakership and deputy prime ministership to a Greek Orthodox.  It has to be noticed here that the numerical strength of the sects was reflected in the relative importance of these offices, in addition to the influential strength derived from the support of foreign powers.[8]

The Pact also reserved a proportional representation of religious sects in the different political and administrative state entities.  It devised a proportional formula of confessional distribution of parliament and cabinet seats (favouring Christians 6:5 ratio), as well as other top government posts (again favouring Christian Maronites).  Minorities were occasionally represented in the cabinet but always in the parliament.

The said reflection was designed by complementing electoral laws that adopted plurality and multimember constituency system.  Candidates were nominated and grouped in lists in each constituency in such a way that each list reflected the sectarian composition of the constituency, and the voters chose among these different proportionally constituted lists.  The number and size of the constituencies and the total number of legislators varied over the years, but an overall ratio of six Christian to five Muslim members of the legislature remained the same.[9]

Although the electoral laws adopted the majority winner-takes-all system, the ‘consociational electoral arrangements’ still begot proportional representation of the sects according to their numerical strength (overlooking the fact that Muslims had outnumbered the Christians).  In other words, the methods used for the election of the president and the members of parliament do not belong to the usual proportional representation systems but were proportional in their effects.[10] The president was chosen by parliament by majority vote, but since it was predetermined that he be a Maronite, this majority method did not entail a contest among the different sects.

This system, which was described as a “preset proportional representation system on a communal or religious basis,”[11] has also often been praised as a proportional system that produced compromise and harmony, because in order to be elected, a candidate needed the votes of members of both his own and other sects, which transferred the rivalry from between candidates of different confessions to those of the same religious sect, thus avoiding malicious sectarian frictions.

As such, the two consociational elements of grand coalition and proportionality were firmly established in the Lebanese post-independence system, and the legislature was the first and most important medium in which this element was obviously reflected.

Mutual veto, on the other hand, may not have been explicitly manifested in a certain constitutional clause, law or procedural decision, but was a constant consensual practice that no law would be enacted, or procedural decree taken that would jeopardize the independent status, rights or privileges of any minority group.  In continuation of the custom practiced during the Ottoman rule, and particularly from the enactment of the 1926 constitution onward, mutual veto was an equally basic but again unwritten provision of the political system.

Furthermore, mutual veto was guaranteed in the legislature by the voting system as explained above (consensus as a general rule or special majority for important decisions).  It was also guaranteed by the practice that assured each sect the chairmanship of at least one parliamentary committee, as well as the membership of the Bureau of Parliament which runs the administrative and logistic affairs of the legislature.

As to the autonomy feature, remarkable is that the core theme of the National Pact was preserving the rights of communal factions of Lebanon.  As such, it was only normal that its institutions and political system would reinforce segmental autonomy in education, civil registry and social welfare.  Segmental autonomy in independent Lebanon was an integral, although unwritten, part of the constitution that the regime will not interfere in the area of intra-confessional social relationships.  Each sect has its own schools and social, recreational, and welfare organizations[12].  Furthermore, the personal status laws, concerning such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, differ from sect to sect and are administered in separate sectarian courts.

C-  Consociationalism in Taif Agreement

In the early 1970’s, domestic and regional changes in and around Lebanon became too severe for the meager National Pact to sustain and to keep the delicate consociational democracy working.  It has been proven that civil war and regional instability are the two chief factors that counteract and deactivate consociational theory.  The consociational structure of the Lebanese system totally collapsed with the eruption of civil war.  But since Lebanon is a multi-sectarian society, then consociational democracy is its only feasible form of governance.  A new structure had to be devised; hence, the Taif Agreement in 1989.

The agreement explicitly highlighted the principle of “mutual coexistence” between Lebanon’s different sects, an alternative Lebanese political expression of consociationalism.  Mutual existence is the practical embodiment of grand coalition, the first characteristic of consociational democracy.  The Taif’s General Principles states that “Lebanon is… a final homeland for all its citizens” [item A, article1], and “culturally, socially and economically-balanced development of all Lebanon’s regions is a mainstay of the state’s unity and of the system’s stability.  The last item of the General Principles couldn’t be more unequivocal when it stipulates that “No authority violating the common co-existence charter shall be legitimate” [item J, article 2].

Even when Taif’s drafters discussed the abolition of intense confessionalism in the political system (political sectarianism), they simultaneously introduced another medium that would secure the representation of the religious sects and guarantee their share of power and their inputs in running the state affairs.   Item 7, article A2 states that “with the election of the first Chamber of Deputies on a national, not sectarian, basis, a senate shall be formed and all the spiritual families shall be represented in it.  The senate powers shall be confined to crucial issues.

Similarly, Taif aimed at abolishing confessionalism in public sector, yet couldn’t but maintain reserved quotas to each religious sect in senior level posts.  The agreement stipulates the abolishment of “the sectarian representation and rely on capability and specialization in public jobs, the judiciary, the military, security, public and joint institutions, and in the independent agencies in accordance with the dictates of national accord, excluding the top-level jobs and equivalent jobs which shall be shared equally by Christians and Muslims without allocating any particular job to any sect”[13].

The charter also defined the proper political representation of all components of the Lebanese society as the main objective of post-civil war parliamentary electoral laws.  Item c of article 3 states that “Parliamentary elections shall be held in accordance with a new law on the basis of provinces and in the light of rules that guarantee common coexistence between the Lebanese, and that ensure the sound and efficient political representation of all the people’s factions and generations.  This shall be done after reviewing the administrative division within the context of unity of the people, the land and the institutions”.

Taif Agreement clearly featured another consociational characteristic, proportionality.  Item 5, A, 2 stipulates that “until the Chamber of Deputies passes an election law free of sectarian restriction, the parliamentary seats shall be divided according to the following bases:

  1. Equally between Christians and Muslims.
  2. Proportionately among the denominations of each sect.
  3. Proportionately among geographic regions”.

Add to this the proportionality in representing the sects at the senior public sector posts, then Taif charter has given an unequivocal pattern of Lijphart’sconsociational proportionality.

In 2017, Lebanese leaders agreed, for the first time in the history of Lebanon, on an electoral law that implements proportional representation in contrast to the first-past-the-post, the winner-takes-all system.

Veto characteristic, which is meant to protect minorities’ rights, has transformed, with Taif, from being a tacit customary practice into a written constitutional principle.  Taif Agreement has resorted to the formula of a specified majority (as opposed to simple majority) on fundamental decisions related to the basics of state regime.  Article 65 of the constitution states that “the legal quorum for a Council meeting shall be a two-thirds majority of its members.  It shall make its decisions by consensus.  If that is not possible, it makes its decisions by vote of the majority of attending members.  Basic issues shall require the approval of two thirds of the members of the government named in the Decree of its formation”.[14]

By invoking consensus as the first option in taking decisions within the cabinet, even before majority voting, Taif Agreement has established a consociational rule perceived as tantamount to veto power to each component of the cabinet, and consequently each community of the country.

Veto feature is also plainly introduced by Taif text when it stipulates in its article (3, B, 2) that “to ensure the principle of harmony between religion and state, the heads of the Lebanese sects may revise the constitutional council in matters pertaining to:

  1. Personal status affairs.
  2. Freedom of religion and the practice of religious rites.
  3. Freedom of religious education”.

As to autonomy consociational characteristic, it has always been, as explained above, a sacred factor revered and protected by the consecutive regimes that governed Lebanon.  Taif Agreement was no less respectful and protective.  The first condition of autonomy of a certain faction is the recognition of this faction and then assign it with definite rights and privileges, the top of which is organizing its own affairs and its followers’ civil status issues.  Article 9 of the constitution stipulates that “there shall be absolute freedom of conscience.  The state in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantees, under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed.  It shall also guarantees that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected”.

ArendLijphart highlights the importance of segmental education and private schools in the context of communal autonomy.  Taif and the Lebanese constitution confirms this importance and guarantees educational form of autonomy.   Item F, 3 states that:

  1. Education shall be provided to all and shall be made obligatory for the elementary stage at least.
  2. The freedom of education shall be emphasized in accordance with general laws and regulations.
  3. Private education shall be protected and state control over private schools and textbooks shall be strengthened.

This item of the Taif Agreement was rephrased in article 10 of the constitution as follows: “Education shall be free insofar as it is not contrary to public order and morals and does not affect the dignity of any of the religions or sects.  There shall be no violation of the right of religious communities to have their own schools provided they follow the general rules issued by the state regulating public instruction.”

It is worth mentioning here that the demographic of Lebanon is characterized by good level of congruency between sectarian population and regional distribution, or to put it differently, each segment of the Lebanese society is territorially concentrated and separate from the other segment.  Lijphart refers to this type of society as a ‘federal society’, a society in which the segmental cleavages coincide with regional cleavages[15].  He indicates that federalism, which is a special form of segmental autonomy and has a few significant parallels with consociational theory, can be used as a consociational method when the plural society is a federal society.

This has been a controversial issue in Lebanon and very sensitive political debate.  Some Lebanese religious factions called for federalism during the civil war, only to be adamantly rejected by opposing segments.  Thus, Taif drafters were keen to strike a delicate balance between granting religious sects functional autonomy and expanding the authority and jurisdiction of Lebanon’s administrative provinces and districts, on one hand, and maintaining the unity of the state (soil, people and institutions), on the other hand.  There has been a Lebanese political slogan commonly used during and after the civil war: ‘Lebanon is too big to swallow and too small to partition’.

Thus, Taif has come up with a consociational compromise in the form of wide decentralisation, or administrative decentralism with a strong central authority, according to the following specifications (5, A, 3):

  1. The State of Lebanon shall be single and united with a strong central authority.
  2. The powers of the governors and district administrative officers shall be expanded and all state administrations shall be represented in the administrative provinces at the highest level possible so as to facilitate serving the citizens and meeting their needs locally.
  3. The administrative division shall be recognized in a manner that emphasizes national fusion within the framework of preserving common coexistence and unity of the soil, people and institutions.
  4. Expanded administrative decentralization shall be adopted at the level of the smaller administrative units [district and smaller units] through the election of a council, headed by the district officer, in every district, to ensure local participation.
  5. A comprehensive and unified development plan capable of developing the provinces economically and socially shall be adopted and the resources of the municipalities, unified municipalities, and municipal unions shall be reinforced with the necessary financial resources.

Taif also restructured the National Pact political system in Lebanon by stripping off the Maronite Christian President part of his powers and conferred most of the executive powers upon the Council of Ministers.  By vesting the executive power in a collective body that comprises proportionally the different factions of the political and societal spectra (i.e.  the Council of Ministers), Taif agreement has made the decision-making a collective task and thus gave each component a share of the power.  Hence, grand coalition and veto power have been enforced and consociational democracy becomes more obvious (a, G, 2).

Within this context of consociationalism introduced by the 1989 Agreement, the legislature also had its share of the Taif’s amendments.  Its presidency (Speakership) was made more stable and given wide legislative and political powers.

  D- Consociationalism outside Constitutional Institutions

Gauging Lebanese consociational democracy merely by Lijphart’s four characteristics might turn out to be delusional given the distinctive features and special attributes of the Lebanese political system since its inception.  In the Lebanese case, assessing the system by the letter of the constitution does not give the observer the proper comprehension of the system.  There are myriad of factors, local and international, historical and geographical, political, social and economic, religious and ideological, that have their inputs deeply affect the nature of the political system of Lebanon and the functions of its institutions.

In this sense, consociationalism in the Lebanese democracy is the shadow constitution and regulatory laws that govern the political life.  Beyond the letter of the constitution, consociationalism is embodied in the ‘social contract’ of the Lebanese society.  After a hundred years of togetherness on the same territory, within the same borders, experiencing same ebbs and flows of history, a common spirit has prevailed among the People of Lebanon.  This spirit is now embodied in their culture, way of thinking, behavior and political and social praxis.  It might not be found in the texts of the constitution, laws or even the executive procedural decisions, but it is invoked on every historic turn, and every time a vital political issue surfaces.  Indeed, political leaders’ first resort is the constitution and other legal tools, but when the latter fail to accommodate with a pressing existential matter, then the shadow constitution is invoked.  This shadow constitution is the first and most important feature of consociationalism.

The characteristics of consociational form of democracy, in Lebanon in particular, are not so much any particular institutional arrangement as the consensual governing of the plural Lebanese society by the leaders of all significant segments.  The grand coalition cabinet, for instance, is the prototypal consociational device, but a variety of other forms can serve the same function.  Even where the cabinet itself is a grand coalition, it may not be the only or the most important constitutional organ.[16]

Lebanese leaders invented the best examples of consociationalism in its prototypal form outside constitutional institutions, the most obvious of which is the Table of National Dialogue.  National Dialogues have been part of the country’s political and social fabric.[17] They have served as important discussion fora outside Parliament and the Council of Ministers to address core political divides that polarize the country.[18] The aim, therefore, is to find consensus among the ruling elites who can maintain peace and stability in the country, and to include in the decision-making process those factions’ leaders who are not probably represented in conventional constitutional institutions.  This corresponds to Lijphart’s elite accommodation in the form of grand coalition.

National dialogues in Lebanon is a method to delegate the most difficult and faithful decisions to the top leaders of the segments.  The advantage of this arrangement is that in intimate, limited and secret negotiations the likelihood of achieving a package deal is maximized and that of the imposition of a veto minimized.  Since the Lebanese National Dialogue context decision-making is heavily based on the consensus principle, another characteristic of Lijphartconsociationalism is displayed—mutual veto.

Another example of consociational forum outside constitutional bodies is the Troika phenomenon.  This refers to the top three ruling positions in the Republic of Lebanon, or more precisely, the occupants of these positions: the Maronite President, the Shiite Speaker and the

Sunni Prime Minister.  After Taif, it became a norm that thorny and vital issues are discussed and decided among these three leaders and then referred to their normal track only for formal ceremonial execution.


Consociationalism as a form of democracy has been criticized on the ground of its purpose, process and outcomes.  Consociational democracy has been associated with power sharing among diverse groups of a plural society, and at the same time has been linked to ordaining stability in a divided nation.

If power sharing amongst the factions of society is guaranteed by grand coalition characteristic, then questions on the scope of this sharing are raised, and the true representation of the factions it reflects.  Since grand coalition is mainly attributed to the elites; i.e., leaders of the factions, then the result is that consociational government policies are more influenced by a small group of people who might not be specialist in the art of governance, and thereby the effectiveness is compromised, especially if a policy is technically sophisticated and the general public is inadequately informed.  This result is aggravated by the fact that an elite, no matter their popularity among their faction, cannot claim to represent the aspiration of the entire community.  Thus, consociational democracy may be criticized for not being democratic enough.

In Lebanon, the leaders are relatively educated and are the lineage of historic families, but these attributes are not anymore enough for modern leadership.  Limited elite accommodation attaches more importance to personal character of the leader than to institutions.  This has led to weak political institutions as well as severe inflexible institutionalization of consociational principles.  The segmental allocation of the highest offices and the preset electoral proportionality, both of which favored the Christian sects before Taif, were incapable of allowing a smooth adjustment to the new demographic realities since the Independence.

Consociational democracy in Lebanon has been also criticized for being insufficiently capable of achieving a stable and efficient government.  By definition, the goal of this form of government is maintaining public security and political stability.  Lebanese political life, particularly after Taif, has been fraught with immobility and power vacuum in constitutional institutions.  All three top posts—presidency, prime ministership and parliament—have experienced lethal vacuum the effect of which was so severe it destabilized the country and threatened its peace and security.  Edward Shils said that Lebanon was “a country which must be kept completely still politically in order to prevent communal self-centeredness and mutual distrust from turning into active and angry contention”[19].  It has been obvious in Lebanon that on different phases, the balance of power between different religious communities has come at the expense of true democratic values.  However, any alteration in that balance of power, be it for the aim of enforcing straight democratic features, can cause paralysis to the political system as a whole and threaten public security and political stability.  Lebanese consociational government has seen much of this alteration of power and, consequently, witnessed failure to bring about and maintain political stability, on few occasions.

Moreover, the mutual veto in Lebanon has represented negative minority rule.  While such a veto may give each segment a complete guarantee of political protection, its great danger is that it might lead to minority tyranny, which may strain the cooperation in a grand coalition as much as the outvoting of minorities.[20] Lebanon has had difficulties in passing laws, forming a government and naming a president.  Its parliament was closed—indefinitely adjourned—by its speaker himself under the pretext that the government violated the common co-existence charter; i.e., grand coalition consociationalism.[21]

The weakness of opposition in consociational form of democracy is another field of its criticism.  Grand coalition government necessarily entails either a relatively small and weak opposition or the absence of any formal opposition in the legislature.  Given the fact that the presence of a strong opposition is an essential ingredient of democracy, consociational government is by definition less democratic than the conventional government-versus-opposition pattern.  This is clearly felt and experienced in Lebanon.

Critics of consociationalism have tried to highlight that this form of governance yields to an ineffectual legislature.  In Lebanon many essential issues, before presented to the parliament, are raised, discussed and decided upon in the cabinet, which is described as ‘true Parliament on a small scale’.  To top that off, two extra-constitutional bodies do also infringe on the jurisdiction of parliament: the Table of National Dialogue and Troika.

Democracy itself has been criticized on the same ground of purpose, process and outcomes; yet, democracy is still the best available form of government until humanity progress comes out with a new form that heralds a new civilization.[22] In the same vein, political thinkers approach their critique of consociational form of democracy from different perspectives.  Many do not necessarily oppose its four basic characteristics or its favorable conditions as explained above, but mainly criticized its promised outcome of political stability in plural societies.  In this research, I have distinguished between democratic outcomes of effectively implementing consociational principles (grand coalition, minorities rights, power sharing), and undemocratic outcomes that are the distorted byproducts of implementation of consociational principles (limited elite accommodation, minority tyranny, political system paralysis and power vacuums).

The accusation that implementing consociationalism in plural societies will result in a weak opposition or lack of opposition, hence undemocratic regime, overlooks the fact that implementing the conventional form of democracy might even lead to less democracy.  The assumption presupposes that political parties alternate in government and opposition.  As discussed above, segmental cleavages tend to be inflexible and do not allow much movement of votes between parties.  Political parties would coincide with religious or ethnical communities, not with ideological or political visions; which means fixed pre-defined followers of every party (and this is the case in Lebanon with all big parties).  If conventional majority-versus-minority rule is to be applied, then minorities will not be represented in political institutions.  It cannot be considered very democratic to exclude the minority segment or segments permanently from participation in the government.  It should also be pointed out that a grand coalition does not rule out opposition completely.  As long as there is a parliament or other body to which a grand coalition is responsible, criticism may be directed against the entire coalition or against individual members of the coalition from any party.

As to the inflexibility of consociational institutions and the resulting power vacuum, it should be noticed here that even the staunchest advocates of consociational democracy admit that for consociationalism to work properly there have to be favorable conditions.  Worldwide economic crisis, regional turbulence, civil wars and domestic disorder are all factors that not only upset proper functioning of consociationalism, but negatively affect the outcomes and attributes of democracy itself.  Lebanon, the small country it is, has always been the theatre where super powers play out their powerful cards against each other, and where big regional countries maintain their interests and impose their sway through local or regional proxies.  The infamous 15-year civil war of Lebanon has been dubbed as ‘the war of others over Lebanese soil’.  Consequently, such exceptional periods should not be taken as examples of consociational democracy faltering.

Although this model of governance had its drawback in the case of Lebanon, it generated a sound environment for democratic stability, except for the exceptional periods of civil war (1975 – 1989) and regional upheaval (Israeli aggressions and Arab Spring).  There have been too many democratic failures in plural societies in recent years (consociational model did not succeed in Cyprus), yet it is the best kind of democracy that can realistically be expected.  On the whole, consociational democracy in Lebanon must be judged to have performed satisfactorily for more than thirty years.  As such, the case of Lebanon lends considerable support to the suggestion that the consociational model should be given serious consideration as an alternative to the British model of democracy in the plural societies of the Third World.  [23]

It is due to this relative success that politicians, strategists and peace advocates have been suggesting to copy the Lebanese experience to war-ravaged plural counties like Iraq and Syria.  Lebanonisation, Iraqi Taif or Syrian Taif have been used as common political terms in Middle East war political settlement.

Having said that, Lebanese partial success of consociationalism must not overlook the root changes that should be made within the system in order to uphold a transparent and accountable regime.  Political arrangements must be found which accord to all communal groups a meaningful role in national life and which are able to keep communal conflict within manageable bounds.  The stability of culturally plural societies is threatened not by communalism, per se, but by the failure of national institution explicitly to recognize and accommodate existing communal divisions and interests.[24]

A balance must be struck between implementing consociational features in the Lebanese system of governance and implementing the conventional democratic rules and norms that keep the system working and prevent institutional paralysis and power vacuum.  In the very near future and when the blazing fire in the Middle East is put off, Lebanon should resort to rationality and hold a corrective ‘Taif conclave’ that should built on Taif Accord and design a new set of regulations that make constitutional institutions more flexible and aid the system with formulas to overcome standoffs and avert power vacuum.

I see no better qualified institution to initiate this conclave than Lebanese legislature itself, given the consociational attributes it sports which present a guarantee to all Lebanese confessions.  Lebanese legislature should trigger the reform, and it should start it with a self-reform.  When legislature, the mother of political institutions, is reformed the entire system follows suit.


Legal References

  • The Lebanese Constitution which was promulgated on the 23rd of May 1926 and all of its amendments.
  • The National Charter document (which was agreed upon in the Saudi city of Al Taifon the 22nd of October, 1989)
  • Lebanese Chamber of Deputies’ (parliament) Internal Regulations
  • The Parliamentary Life magazine. مجلة الحياة النيابية
  • The 1842 Kaymakamate Protocol and regulations
  • The 1861 Mutasarifate Protocol and its amendments in 1864

Books and Publications

  • Abu Latif, Eduardo, the Limitations of the Consociational Arrangements in Iraq, Ethnoppolitics Papers No. 38, University of Otago, 2015.
  • Ammourah, Abdul Fattah, Lectures on Political Situation in the Middle East, O. P. Jindal Global University, 2019.
  • Anderson, Gordon, The Idea of a Nation State is an Obstacle to Peace, International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2006.
  • Bahout, Joseph, The Unravelling of Lebanon’s Taif Agreement, Limits of Sect-Based Power Sharing, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016.
  • Binder, Leonard, National Integration and Political Development, American Political Science Review 58, no.3, September 1964.
  • Binder, Leonard, Political Change in Lebanon, a paper in Politics in Lebanon, edited by Binder, 1973.
  • Calhjoun, John C., A Disquisition on Government, New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.
  • Dodge, Toby, State Collapse and the Rising of Identity Politics, In David Malone, Markus Bouillon and Ben Rosewell, Iraq: Preventing a New Generation of Conflict, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publisher, Inc.
  • Hanf, Theodore, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon, Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation, London: I. B. Tauris, 1993.
  • Hudson, Michael, The precarious Republic, Political Modernization in Lebanon, New York, Harvard University, 1968.
  • Jabbra, Joseph and Nancy Jabbra, Consociational Democracy in Lebanon, a Flawed System of Governance, in Jamil E. Jreisati, Governance and Developing Countries, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2015.
  • Kerr, Michel, Imposing Power Sharing, Conflict and Consensus in Northern Ireland and Lebanon, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2005.
  • Lijphart, Arend, The Politics of Accommodation, Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
  • Lijphart, Arend, Democracy in Plural Societies, A Comparative Exploration, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1977.
  • McGarry, John and Brendan O’Leary, Consociational Theory, Northern Ireland’s Conflict, and its Agreement, Part I, Vol 41, No 1.
  • Melson, Robert and Howard Wolpe, Modernization and the Politics Communalism: A Theoretical Perspective, American Political Science Review 64, no. 4, December 1970.
  • O’Leary, Brendan, Power Sharing, Pluralist Federation, and Federacy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press.
  • Salamey, Imad, Failing Consociationalism in Lebanon and Integrative Options, International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 14, Number 2, 2009.
  • Shils, Edward, The Prospect for Lebanese Civility, in Politics in Lebanon, NY: Wiley and Sons, 1966.
  • Suleiman, Michael W., Political Parties in Lebanon: The Challenge of a fragmented Political Culture, Cornell University Press, 1967.
  • Wählisch, Martin, The Lebanese National Dialogue: Past and present experience of consensus-building, National Dialogue Handbook Case Study, Berlin: Berghof Foundation, 2017.

Mr. Rabie Narsh. The policy times

Mr. Rabie Narsh,

PhD scholar and researcher, Lebanon


Article Name
Legislature’s Role in Lebanese Consociational Democracy
This paper tackles a subject that has not been thoroughly researched in the study of consociationalism and political accommodation in plural societies: the role of Legislature in Lebanese consociational democracy.
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