Lebanon Consensus Democracy


Lebanon is a small Middle East country with a variety of faiths, confessions and sects of various and often opposite and extreme views. Sectarian-based political parties determine the political situation. Under such conditions, maintaining unity and development in the country is a challenging task. Recent decades have not been peaceful for Lebanon, the country torn by civil wars and entangled in territorial conflicts with neighboring states of Israel and Syria. To ensure peace, Lebanon follows the consensus democratic system that implies acting in the interests of the whole nation and dividing power between the representatives of the three major confessions respectively. The system of consensus democracy based on confessional representation played a positive role in the past, but now it fails to address the needs of contemporary Lebanese society. This paper will research the roots of the consensus democratic system in Lebanon and its peculiarities and the way it works. The analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the system linked to the current situation in the country will show its efficacy under the present conditions. On the basis of the analysis, it is possible to predict that Lebanon will be able to keep the system even in the situation of the never-ending conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’a and the rise of Islamic extremism.

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The Principle of Consensus Democracy

“Consensus democracy is the application of consensus decision-making to the process of legislation in a democracy” (“Consensus Democracy,” 2015). Consensus or consociationalism is opposed to the majoritarian principle in democracy. The essence of consensus decision making is considering the widest possible range of opinions in order to ensure passing laws in the interests of the whole country and not a group. In contrast to the systems, where the political majority may ignore the minority needs and opinions, consensus democracy enables a pragmatic and fair approach to the legislative process. Consensus democracy is applied in countries where it is desirable to prevent the domination of one ethnic, religious, or linguistic group over others, for example, in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, and Iraq (“Consensus Democracy,” 2015). For Lebanon, with almost equal distribution of the population and political parties based on religious confessions, the consensus democratic system appeared to be an ideal solution.

The Lebanese Constitution adopted of 1926 that establishes the consociation principle is still in force today with some changes and amendments. The provisions of the Constitution establish a parliamentary form of the government, separation of powers, supremacy of law and the guarantee of the basic individual rights and freedoms to citizens (Saliba, 2015).

Preconditions for the Lebanese Type of Consensus Democracy

It is impossible to explain why consensus democracy was chosen as a decision-making principle without considering the diverse ethnic, national and political patterns of the country. The Lebanese society consists of a variety of groups formed based on their ethnicity, clan, and religion. Arabs comprise 95% of the population though many Lebanese Christians do not prefer to identify themselves as Arabs but as Phoenicians (CIA, 2015) or the Lebanese (Saliba, 2015); 4% are Armenian, and 1% are other ethnicities (CIA, 2015). Fifty-four percent of the population confesses Islam, and the Sunni and Shia sects have approximately equal number of adepts. There are 40.5% of Christians, among them 21% are Maronite Catholics, 8% are of the Greek Orthodox faith, 5% are Greek Catholic, and 6.5% belong to other Christian denominations. Druze adepts comprise 5.6% of the population, and representatives of other religions are not numerous (CIA, 2015). Originally, Christians and the Druze inhabited the historical Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon, and Muslims populated several districts of other provinces (Saliba, 2015).

The political parties of Lebanon have a strong confessional affiliation. For instance, the Free Patriotic Movement, Kataeb Party (the Phalange), National Bloc, National Liberal Party, and Lebanese Forces are backed by Christians. Amal and Hezbollah are Shia parties, while Hizb ut-Tahrir, Future Movement, Independent Nasserist Organization, Al-Tawhid, and Ahbash have Sunni electorate. The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) is an influential Druze political unit (“Politics of Lebanon,” 2015). With such a variety of parties, confessions, and nationalities, consensus democracy seemed to be the only way to sustain accord in society.

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Peculiarities of Consensus Democracy in Lebanon

Consensus democracy in Lebanon follows the general framework though with local peculiarities. Majed (2012) cites the two primary and two secondary features of consensus democracy according to Lijphart, namely “grand coalition and segmental autonomy; and proportionality and minority veto.” The Lebanese political system observes these principles. The Constitution of 1926 stipulates segmental autonomy and the proportional representation of religious communities in the government and the civil service; hence, the Lebanese government presents grand coalitions. The minority veto regulation was added in 1943 (Majed, 2012). The Lebanese parliament is a coalition with the proportional representation of major religious groups and the inclusion of religious minorities. Normally, a common agreement is necessary to pass a decision. On the one hand, it makes the procedure of decision making impeded and complicated, as it can result into endless bargaining and negotiations. On the other hand, this principle ensures that the government does not neglect or violate minorities’ interests. Decisions taken without a consensus can be ignored or sabotaged by part of the population; moreover, highly militant Lebanese parties are ready to fight for their rights, which can jeopardize fragile stability in the country and the whole region.

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Division of Power and Allocation of Posts

Lebanon has a western-style government with three branches of power: legislative, executive and judicial. The parliament represents the legislative branch, the President and the Cabinet of Ministers represent the executive branch, and the Constitutional Court exercises the judicial power on the highest level. Citizens elect their President and deputies to the Parliament at a general election, but a similar representation of religions is observed. Therefore, according to the law, the President should be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament – a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister – a Sunni Muslim. Such a division prevents the concentration of power in the hands of one religious group and secures the balance of interests.

Development of Consensus Democracy in Lebanon

The system of consensus democracy in Lebanon is historically justified. The process of its establishment shows strong points and weaknesses. In the process of drafting the initial variant of the Lebanese Constitution in 1926, it was impossible to ignore the historically established presence of Shia and Sunni Muslims and Christians and the relationship between them. Therefore, the law-makers showed practical sense and deep understanding of the context when formulating Article 95 as follows, “As a temporary measure … and for the sake of justice and concord the religious communities shall be equitably represented in public employment and in the formation of the Cabinet without causing harm to the interests of the State” (Saliba, 2015). In the first Lebanese Senate, five seats were allocated to the Maronite Christians, three to the Sunnis, three to the Shias, two to the Greek Orthodox followers, one to a Greek Catholics, one to a Druze, and one to a representative of some minority denomination not yet represented in the Senate (Saliba, 2015). The House of Deputies was formed based on the similar principle, while the number of deputies belonging to different confessions varied from year to year. In that way, the Deputies represented rather a religious group than the ethnic or location-based community (Saliba, 2015).

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The National Pact of 1943 was concluded when Maronite Christian President Bechara al-Khouri and Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Riad al-Solh agreed to end the French Mandate (Saliba, 2015). It was the first example of consensus between two different religions to gain independence for Lebanon. The government had to solve the controversy between Muslims and Christians that had different religions, national self-identification and political visions. Only consensus between the parties helped normalize the situation. The spirit of the National Pact prevailed in the following years, when the major religions sought for consensus to manage and develop the country. Further, the major political positions of the President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament were assigned to the representatives of certain religious communities. However, the accord did not last long. The regulation of the first conflict in 1958 required interference of the U.S. Marines. The controversies increased, and in 1975 a conflict between Muslims and Christians developed into a civil war that lasted until 1989 (Saliba, 2015).

In 1989, the deputies of the 1972 Parliament who survived in the turmoil gathered in Taef, Saudi Arabia, to find a compromise and put an end to the devastating civil war. The meeting resulted into the Taef Agreement and several amendments to the Constitution. The idea of a new compromise was that no present or future authority or legitimacy might contradict the pact of co-existence. Furthermore, the Taef amendments caused other serious changes. The President gave over a great deal of the executive power to the Council of Ministers (Article 17). Article 65 states a two/third vote requirement for any significant decision of the Cabinet. Article 19 established the Constitutional Court. The deputies agreed upon the equal distribution of seats in the Parliament between Christians and Muslims as long as the electoral system was based on the religious representation principle (Article 24). The Senate was established again to represent religious communities after the House of Deputies had ceased to be elected on the confessional basis (Article 22). However, the problem of the confused national identity remained a potential source of future conflicts (Saliba, 2015).

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The next crisis exploded between the Shias and the Sunnis. In 2008, the conflict between the Shiite Cabinet of Ministers and the Sunni opposition resulted into the removal of all Shias from the office. On May 7, 2008, the Shiite-free Cabinet of Ministers passed two decrees against Shiite militant political party Hezbollah. The Shiite community throughout the country did not accept the decrees. It took only a few days for Hezbollah fighters to occupy the Sunni area of West Beirut and force the Cabinet to terminate the decrees. Fortunately, this time it was enough for the conflicting parties to prevent the war and to revisit their positions (Saliba, 2015).

The same month, the representatives of the Lebanese major religious communities met in Doha, Saudi Arabia, to negotiate the following consensus. They decided to elect a consensus president, form a national unity government, where the opposition would receive the veto right, and to carry out elections to the Parliament according to the law in order to ensure an equal representation of Christians in the government (Salib, 2015). The Doha agreement proved the necessity of the participation of all religious communities in the political process to secure the observance of the law and effective functioning of the state. The events of 2008 in Lebanon showed that the principle of consensus democracy involving all confessions irrespective of their representation in the government is the key to peace and security in the country, no matter how fragile it may be. The 1989 Taef deputies realized the imperfectness of the confession-based consensus principle and stipulated for the possibility of reforms. The 2005 Commission headed by Prime Minister Fouad Boutros was a serious attempt to establish an electoral law free of sectarianism. The draft law remains suspended as confronting the constitutional principles.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Consensus Democracy

In politics, there are no ideal solutions, and consensus democracy has its pluses and minuses. The Lebanese experience, even with concession to its confessional groups, reveals both advantages and disadvantages of the consensus as a decision-making model. Consensus democracy is a good principle for the representation of minority parties and the protection of minority interests.

First, a consensus depends upon the wish of every party to find a compromise or a decision that will be palatable for everyone. Some Middle East parties (for example, notorious Hezbollah) have extremist views. As a result of the rise of Islamic extremism in the region, one can expect that some groups within the major confessions and parties will not be willing to sacrifice some of their principles for the sake of peace and security.

A consensus is a good tool for small communities provided the members are open-minded and ready to consider the interests of the minority. The size of Lebanon is an advantage in this case. However, where open-mindedness and readiness to compromise give place to religious zealotry, it is difficult to expect a sensible approach. The events of 2008 confirm this opinion. At the same time, a short period necessary for the parties to come into terms and to proceed to negotiations gives some hope. The Lebanese society is weary of war, and the memories of losses and devastation are still so strong that it can be a certain guarantee of the prevention of those events in the nearest future.

Thus, consensus democracy requires a lot of time and negotiations and a genuine wish of the parties to compromise. The size of the community and the number of parties are also a serious barrier. The representative body elected to represent the parties should negotiate on their behalf. If it is too small, it will fail to represent opinions accurately; if it is too numerous, a compromise will become doubtful or even impossible. As seen in case of Lebanon, consensus democracy on the confessional representation basis is the only effective tool to keep the nation integral and united and the country afloat. However, under contemporary conditions, it is problematic. Society is split on the religious grounds, and the never-ending conflict between the Shia and the Sunni, both resorting to extremism, leaves less hope for the preservation of peace in the country.

Obviously effective at the beginning, consensus democracy fails to follow the development of the Lebanese society. Since the end of 1950, the share of Muslims in the total population of the country increased. However, the quotas remained unchanged, which led to dissatisfaction and a conflict in the 1990s (Majed, 2012). Additionally, urbanization, depopulation of suburbs and rural areas, and the impoverishment of peasants caused considerable shifts in the demographic map of Lebanon; thus, the confessional distribution does not accurately correspond to geographic districts any longer. Therefore, political parties formed on the sectarian principle and tied to specific locations cannot accurately represent the interests of the population of these locations. The distribution of public funds based on religious representation also becomes more problematic.

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Lebanon needs a strong charismatic leader or leaders who will promote constructive values without damage to ethnic and religious principles. The country needs the government that will put aside particular differences in the interests of the whole country. A central force is necessary, which will accentuate other than religious needs, for example, the economic development and prosperity of the nation, and at the same time persecute manifestations of extremism. As long as there is no consensus in the government, the security of the Lebanese society is jeopardized. Along with that, consensus democracy is a too precious achievement for Lebanon to abandon it at once, and each political party realizes it. Although there is a progressing movement for a secular government and political representation versus confessional, the extent of the penetration of religion into the Lebanese home policy makes it doubtful to achieve a consensus. The Taef Agreement expressed an assumption that once the confession-based electoral system would be abolished. Many Lebanese people believe it will be the best solution for the country.


As a country with multiple religions and confessions, Lebanon depends upon an agreement among its major communities. Unluckily, conflicts on the religious ground are the most difficult to solve, and religious extremism has the ugliest manifestations. Therefore, the model of consensus decision-making established in 1926 for the whole nation is an efficient tool to avoid the domination of one confession over others. However, even with the amendments taken in the course of history, consensus democracy could not protect society from religious conflicts. The policy is effective under the condition that the parties wish to compromise. With the wave of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, the compromise becomes problematic. However, history proves that society returns to this model repeatedly, rethinking and improving it each time. Although a large part of the Lebanese society understands the drawbacks of confessional representation, the interconnection of religion and politics is still too strong. Therefore, consensus democracy in Lebanon will survive in the end, even if failing for a while because of internal conflicts.


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