Consociational Power-Sharing Performance: Assessing a Mixed Record

18th Sep 2020 by Allison McCulloch

Consociational Power-Sharing Performance: Assessing a Mixed Record

This post was originally published in Arabic on the LAU’s Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution website, available here: It is reproduced in English with LAU's kind permission.

The performance of consociational governance is mixed. It works in some places on some issues but not everywhere all of the time.[i]Comparatively, it has a strong record on ending large-scale political violence and including minorities in political life. Its decision-making efficiency and ability to effectively represent all issues and identities, however, have weaker performance evaluations. What explains this uneven track record? What can be done about it? 

Variable performance outcomes are traceable to the countervailing incentives at the heart of power-sharing strategies. Consociation can push parties towards compromise but also pull them towards collapse. Sometimes, it incentivizes a brinkmanship-style politics as parties seek to extract concessions from the other side. Here, the end result is often deadlock, or even a return to violence. At other times, consociation’s fear-reducing ability aligns with politicians’ power-seeking nature to induce compromise. By embedding confidence-building measures, it encourages parties both to take up their share of power and to remain in their posts and get on with the business of governing.[ii]Consociation is also the central means by which minorities can protect their vital interests; exiting a power-sharing deal can be costlier for minorities than cooperation. 

What tips the balance towards compromise and away from collapse?  Howa consociation is designed influences how it performs. This seems an obvious conclusion. Yet, given its frequent depiction as a one-size-fits-all solution, it bears emphasizing that there are myriad ways to design consociational institutions. Executive power-sharing is compatible with parliamentary, semi-presidential and presidential systems. Proportionality can be achieved through a proportional electoral system, reserved seats and/or quotas in civil service appointments and resource allocation. Veto rights can be triggered by a minority group caucus opposing the motion, by qualified majority voting rules requiring the mutual consent of all groups, or through quorum stipulations. Segmental autonomy can take territorial or non-territorial form and be symmetrical or asymmetrical in scope. 

Which design rules matter for compromise? The liberal-corporate distinction is an important starting point. Consociational design can be informed by a corporate logic whereby ascriptive groups are guaranteed a share of power in advance of election results (as in Lebanon, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Burundi, and Belgium) or informed by liberal consociation which “rewards whatever salient political identities emerge in democratic elections,”[iii]ethnic or otherwise (examples include Northern Ireland, Iraq, North Macedonia, Kenya, and Fiji). This has implications for compromise: amid heightened insecurity, groups will seek to negotiate corporate guarantees; those same rules risk entrenching divisions, possibly tipping the balance towards collapse. Even if the adoption problem can be overcome, as it sometimes can with the assistance of external actors, liberal rules may not, on their own, be strong enough to alleviate insecurities.[iv]Constitutional designers should thus consider hybrid power-sharing configurations that provide enough protection to ward off existential anxieties for ethnic communities (corporate rules) while simultaneously also offering rights protections and representation for non-ethnic groups (liberal rules).[v]

A focus on the liberal-corporate distinction can also spotlight the two biggest ‘blind spots’ in power-sharing theory: the (in)ability of power-sharing arrangements to ‘biodegrade’ over time (i.e., move to a more ‘normal’ style of politics) and their (in)ability to include identities, interests, and individuals beyond the ethno-divide (i.e., how class, gender, and sexuality are incorporated in power-sharing designs).[vi]This invites constitutional designers to look beyond the immediate need for a settlement and consider how the proposed institutional package plays out over the life of the agreement. It encourages the adoption of rules flexible enough to support an ongoing widening of who can access power and rules capable of opening pathways from power-sharing if and when this is the agreed-upon course of action among power-sharing partners.[vii]

It is often said that power-sharing is a not a panacea. This is true – as true of consociational settlements as it is all institutional designs.  With this proviso in mind, consociation can often be designed to encourage compromise and inclusion over collapse and exclusion. How and when it does so is contingent on the precise configuration of its design rules, and the political will to support them.   


[i]John McGarry. 2020. A Consociationalist Response. Ethnopolitics 19, 1: 100-106.

[ii]Michaela Mattes & Burcu Savun. 2009. Fostering Peace after Civil War: Commitment Problems and Agreement Design. International Studies Quarterly 53, 3: 737-759. 

[iii]John McGarry, & Brendan O’Leary. 2007. Iraq’s 2005 Constitution: Liberal Consociation as Political Prescription. International Journal of Constitutional Law5, 4: 670-698.

[iv]Andreas Juon. 2020. Minorities Overlooked: Group-Based Power-Sharing and the Exclusion-amid-Inclusion Dilemma. International Political Science Review41,1: 89-107.

[v]Christopher McCrudden & Brendan O’Leary. 2013. Courts and Consociations: Human Rights versus Power Sharing. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Allison McCulloch. 2014. Consociational Settlements in Deeply Divided Societies: The Liberal-Corporate Distinction. Democratization 21,3: 503-518; Bassel Salloukh & Renko A. Verheij. 2017. Transforming Power-Sharing: From Corporate to Hybrid Consociation in Postwar Lebanon. Middle East Law and Governance9: 147-173.

[vi]Florian Bieber. 2020. Moving the Power-Sharing Debate Forward. Ethnopolitics19, 1: 96-99.

[vii]Allison McCulloch. 2017. Pathways from Power-Sharing. Civil Wars 19, 4: 405-424; Feargal Cochrane, Neophytos Loizides & Thibaud Bodson. 2017. Mediating Power-Sharing: Devolution and Consociationalism in Deeply Divided Societies. London: Routledge.