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
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?