Bahrain: is Consensual Democracy Possible?

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

An article published in a number of local newspapers by the Bahrain Institute for Political Development recently drew my attention. It discusses the features and shortcomings of Consensual democracy, and concludes that adopting this kind of democracy requires social consensus and agreement.

The word consensus (and to some extent Consensual) has often been repeated during the current crisis in Bahrain. The idea of a consensus between various social components (in particular, the Shia and Sunnis) and the regime was regarded – at least by some- as the key to ending the crisis. Although political dialogue between the regime and the opposition is strongly required, it is primarily a means of reaching the desired goal of consensus in Bahrain. The political problem in Bahrain has gone beyond the opposition/regime duality to the Sunni, Shia and regime ‘trinity’. Those who call for consensus and the expansion of the decision making circle (political partnership) will have a different description for the Bahraini crisis than the opposition, for example. If the issue concerns a crisis between various Bahraini social components themselves, and not between the Shia, opposition and the regime, this necessitates a different reading of the situation if we want to implement the principle of Consensual democracy. This is especially true considering that Consensual democracy is designed specifically for societies which are divided religiously, ethnically and linguistically, and aim to achieve political stability.

A divided society is one in which no social component can represent the ‘other national partner’. In other words, no Bahraini social component is able to establish a political party or society removed from sectarian affiliation, even if their bylaws and regulations theoretically guarantee participation for all. In practice however, they are limited to specific groups from the same culture or sect, due to inherent divisions in the political culture.

A divided society is one that suffers from social divisions along ethnic or sectarian lines. Such divisions cannot be cured in the short term with the use of the currently available tools. It is always a concern that social divisions, resultant from political disintegration can cause more political instability and perhaps can lead to civil wars.

Consensual democracy has achieved great successes in many countries, and the failure to adopt it has led to many wars such as the Lebanese civil war of 1975, and the division of Cyprus since 1975. The important question is: to what extent can political parties in Bahrain adopt Consensual democracy? How can a unique version be designed to suit the Bahraini situation? More importantly, is there a better option than Consensual democracy for dealing with the Bahraini crisis? To what extent is the current political stagnation dangerous? Could this lead to more social and political problems and instability?

Consensus should create a connection between equal citizens and political partners, despite their sectarian, regional, ethnic and linguistic differences, whilst maintaining the characteristics and independence of each cultural group. Arend Lijphart, one of the great theorists and promoters of Consensual democracy, outlined in his book ‘Democracy in Plural Societies’ four circumstances of establishing Consensual democracy:

1- A broad alliance between the elected political leaders representing all social segments.

2- A mutual veto for elected representatives, especially concerning the main policies of the state and ruling by consensus in order to protect the interests of minorities. If the representatives of the majority inside a coalition attempt to dominate it, this will lead to the disintegration of the coalition. On the other hand, if the representatives of the minority attempt to pressurise the majority into amending the ‘agreement’, this will also lead to chaos.

3- Proportional representation in government institutions and services.

4- A high level of independence for groups in managing their own cultural affairs which could lead to federalism in some countries.

Consensual democracy does not depend on the majority in parliament to form a government, as the rule of the majority in a diverse society will fail to deal with socio/political crises. Consensual democracy depends on a coalition of elected parties with the most political representation, and on elites who are aware of the importance of partnership and the dangers of division; elites who care about building a political culture which puts the interests of the coalition first, as this will protect the state and assimilate small parties. It will also succeed in gaining reasonable representation in parliament through elections. It is not enough for political leaders to be moderate, tending to solve their problems through mutual compromise. Rather, it is important that this attitude reflects on the behaviour of members of the public affiliated to different groups.

There is no geographical obstacle, requiring federalism or self autonomy, which would make implementation of Consensual democracy difficult in Bahrain. However, there is another element which cannot be found in any other Consensual democracies across Europe, namely the existence of a royal family. Consensual democracy can function alongside a constitutional monarchy, and in Bahrain, the presence of the royal family is important for consensus to succeed. The royal family should also act as a balanced and independent third party, uninvolved in conflicts. This can guarantee the high success of social and political consensus.

In his reading of the experiences of Consensual democracy, Lijphart saw that there are factors which aid its success, many of which are present in the Bahraini situation. These include the small size of the country: it is easy for social communication to occur when the country’s population is low, as in Belgium, Holland, Swwitzerland Lebanon and Austria. There are also no linguistic differences in Bahrain which could impede mutual understanding. Lijphart also believes that an equal number of groups facilitates the Consensual process. This is because the existence of a clear majority makes them prefer the rule of the majority, instead of political partnership (Cyprus). Also, the existence of a foreign danger often helps unify groups, and the presence of a strong national spirit and religion contributes to the success of the Consensual democracy.

These are merely guidelines for Consensual democracy, which also has its shortcomings, and could not succeed as other forms of democracy (such as the parliamentary majority). It is said that democracy in a diverse country is very difficult to achieve because the majority could marginalised half of the population. Consensual rule could also lead to enforcing boundaries instead of breaking them, as well as hijacking the votes of the elites. It seems possible for any country to benefit from this kind of democracy, and design its own version of a democratic Consensual system, in order to save it from dictatorship and guarantee a better future.

It seems that most of the conditions of implementing Consensual democracy are available, but the Bahraini case requires close examination and social and political debates between all social components. Political consensus also means change in the current political debate, and could lead to the marginalization of many issues when attention is directed to the most important questions such as: Is there an intention to build a Bahraini democracy, and how? What kind of democracy would this be, and how could we begin to implement it?