Consociationalism: A false remedy prescribed on a misdiagnosis

To treat the Syrian conflict as essentially sectarian is to mistake a symptom for a root cause—and to risk entrenching societal divisions further, argues Dr. Rima Majed.

The specter of consociationalism is hovering over Syria today. After the Lebanese experience with corporate consociationalism1, and the Iraqi experience with liberal consociationalism2,it seems Syria may be the next in the region to adopt a consociational arrangement.

Consociational democracy has been proposed and adopted in many post-conflict countries around the world, from Kenya to Bosnia-Herzegovina to Northern Ireland. It takes the form of power-sharing arrangements that aim at mitigating tension in what have been diagnosed as “deeply-divided societies.” This special policy prescription is premised on a sociological reading of conflict and violence as essentially being between groups defined by “segmental cleavages” or identity-based divisions, such as sectarian, linguistic, or ethnic distinctions. These vertical cleavages become the basis for “deep divisions” that require special forms of intervention in order to alleviate the allegedly highly emotional and explosive nature of relations that exist in pluralistic and non-homogeneous societies with fragmented political cultures. Consociational democracy calls for a government by elite cartel, whereby groups in conflict are represented by their leaders, and political governance becomes a matter of coalition building and negotiation among the representatives of communities. The original theory calls for limited social contact amongst the groups, and argues that the further up decision-making is pushed, the less likely it is for conflict to arise since it is only at the elite level that bargains and compromises can take place to avoid conflict.

Is conflict in these so-called “deeply divided societies,” however, really one between ethnic or sectarian groups? Is it accurate to consider identity-based heterogeneity at the social level the basis for conflict? Is the diagnosis of conflict in the Middle East as primarily a religious, ethnic, or sectarian one useful for the understanding of the dynamics of conflict and violence? And should such analyses form the basis for policy prescriptions such as consociationalism and sectarian power-sharing?

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1. A type of power-sharing arrangement where the representation of sects is pre-determined constitutionally.
2. Also known as “self-determined consociationalism,” this type of power sharing arrangement does not pre-determine the share of each group in power, but allows for representation to be determined based on electoral outcomes.