The Consociational Theory of Arend Lijphart

Beginning in the 1960s, the political scientist Arend Lijphart (born 1936) proposed that countries like Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, and Switzerland in the late 1950s and early 1960s were not just exceptions to the Continental or proportional model of parliamentary democracy but formed a category of their own he termed consociational.  Over the years, he refined his theory, supplementing (some argue supplanting) consociational democracy with a broader category of consensual democracy in order to categorize and explain certain patterns of political interaction in places like Germany and the Scandinavian countries that lacked the deep divisions of consociational polities (1).  Some theorists dismiss Lijphart’s models, arguing that the polities he labeled as consociational are variations of proportional democracy and that the consensual model is entirely too broad.  Even those who accept the consociational and consensual models debate aspects of Lijphart’s theories, such as the relevance of particular categories, definitions, and interpretations; the impact of the adjustments he made in the theories that complicate efforts to employ them; as well as the changes in certain countries that enabled them to diverge from strict consociational practices.

Any theory in the social sciences must avoid the pitfall of being so narrow that it is applicable to only a few states or so broad that it can be nearly universal, and Lijphart’s models avoid the two extremes and are useable for analysts and policy makers advising countries seeking to establish democratic regimes.  The concept of consociational democracy is narrow by definition, even though its components have a great deal of flexibility, and the broader notion of consensualism has components that are highly specific.  Furthermore, no aspects of either the consociational or consensual model provide necessary and sufficient conditions for determining the applicability of the respective model (2).

Lijphart originally cast consociationalism with four components and several favorable conditions, which he also termed background factors or prerequisites, but he frequently adjusted the model.  His 2008 treatment of consociationalism along with his 1996 assessment of Indian democracy outline nine background factors for consociationalism and preserve his original four components–the essential two components of grand coalitions and cultural autonomy along with the less important ones of proportionality and minority veto (3).  The first component, the grand coalition, is an executive or cabinet that not only has the votes necessary to secure a majority but includes all social segments or as many as possible.  It also may entail a distribution of leadership positions to different groups in other types of institutions and may involve informal elite cooperation.  The second component, cultural or segmental autonomy, furnishes a degree of self-government to each major element in the society.  It might appear as the right of minorities to maintain schools with state funds, as separate laws that preserve the social and cultural practices of minorities, or as federalism, provided that linguistic and internal political boundaries are congruent.  Proportionality involves proportional representation in the legislature and may include guaranteed representation for certain minorities.  It also applies proportional schemes to other spheres of public life, such as bureaucratic appointments or university admissions.  The fourth component is the minority or mutual veto, which enables representatives of an ethnic minority or another type of social segment to reject proposed policies, including legal changes adversely affecting that group, through a formal or informal mechanism.

The first of the nine favorable conditions for consociational democracy is that there is no one dominant majority group in the country, meaning that the polity has what Lijphart alternately referred to as clearly-defined cleavages, mutually reinforcing cleavages, deep divisions, or a strong sense of pluralism.  These racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, or ideological divisions result in the formation of several segments or pillars, possibly in specific geographic areas, that isolate their members from other pillars.  Second, the segments or pillars have roughly the same sort of socioeconomic composition, that is, there are no significant socioeconomic inequalities between the various segments.  Third, the number of groups usually is not high, although that is not the case with India, which demonstrates the flexibility of the theory.  Fourth, the segments have roughly the same size, which enables them to achieve a balance of power, partly through the efforts of the political parties that represent them, instead of allowing one segment or block of segments to gain a majority.  Fifth, either the population of the country generally is small, or federalism divides the state into smaller units.  Sixth, the state faced or continues to contend with at least one external threat to its existence.  Seventh, the various segments have some overarching loyalties, for example, national identity, religion, or a dynasty.  Eighth, the geographic concentration of the segments facilitates some form of autonomy or federalism.  Finally, a tradition of compromise facilitates consociationalism.  The actions of the elites are essential to fulfilling this last prerequisite, and aiding their efforts to cooperate are cross-cutting cleavages, that is, overlapping memberships or intersections at which individuals in one segment of society share common interests with their counterparts in other segments.  In consociational literature, the elite cartel, which encompasses both legal and unofficial associations of elites, may take seemingly undemocratic steps to stabilize the polity’s democratic institutions.  Their actions enable the elites to form bridges linking the segments of the society, ensuring not only that they accommodate the interests of the various pillars but that they also maintain and improve the democratic system.  To do otherwise would entail fragmentation and collapse.  As they build alliances with other pillars in the society, the elites have a difficult balancing act because in the arrangements they make with their counterparts representing other segments, they must not only satisfy the expectations of their own constituents but also avoid political agreements that would anger them (4).

In the 1980s, Lijphart devised a broad theory of consensual democracy, claiming that “neither consensus nor consociational democracy are special forms of one another or completely encompass the other” (5).  The characteristics of consociationalism–grand coalition, segmental autonomy, proportionality, minority veto, plural society, and elite predominance–appear in their original or slightly altered forms in the principles of the consociational model.  Consensus democracies have executive power sharing that overlaps with the grand coalition of consociational democracies.  A multiparty system that is multidimensional, meaning that it has many religious, cultural, or other cleavages, appears in consensual democracies, but such political parties also exist in consociational democracies as a reflection of their deeply segmented societies.  Proportional representation plays an important role in consensual democracies, while consociational democracies extend proportional representation a step further through proportionality in such areas as civil service appointments and public spending.  Federalism and decentralization characterize consensual democracies, features that are similar to the segmental autonomy of consociational democracies.  Consensual democracies have rigid constitutions that require supermajorities in order to be amended, a principle that is narrower than the minority veto in consociational democracies, although it can achieve the same effect.  Finally, in consensualism, representative democracy, which is related to elite predominance in consociationalism, stands in stark contrast to direct democracy that often excludes the minority from the decision-making process, although referenda may have a consensual character when addressing minority issues (6).  Several specific components of the consensual paradigm are lacking in consociational democracies.  Lijphart initially noted two: a balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches and strong bicameralism.  He also discussed the judicial review of legislative decisions linked with the idea of a rigid constitution (7).  In Patterns of Democracy (1999), Lijphart slightly adjusted the components of his consociational model that he had introduced in 1984: executive power sharing in broad coalition cabinets; executive-legislative balance of power; multiparty systems; proportional representation; federal and decentralized governments; strong bicameralism; constitutional rigidity; judicial review; interest group corporatism that facilitates cooperation between business and labor, on the one hand, and political groups, on the other hand; and central bank independence that helps keep the economy free from political influence (8).  Each feature of consensus democracies can find its way into the broad interpretation Lijphart gave consociationalism.

Because the consociational and consensual theories address two different types of democracies, Lijphart was able to note that “although there are several differences between these two forms of democracy, these differences do not entail any conflict.  Consociational and consensus democracy are perfectly compatible with each other” (9).  He also explained that in deeply segmented societies, “consociationalism is the stronger medicine: while consensus democracy provides many incentives for broad power-sharing, consociationalism requires it and prescribes that all significant groups be included in it; similarly, consensus democracy facilitates but consociational democracy demands segmental autonomy” (10).


1) There is a large body of literature on consociational and consensual democracy, some of which predates Lijphart’s work, even though he receives credit for developing the theory.  The first of Lijphart’s seminal works is “Consociational Democracy,” World Politics 21 (October 1969): 207-225, and is reprinted in Kenneth D. McRae, ed., Consociational Democracy: Political Accommodation in Segmented Societies, Carleton Library, no. 79 (Toronto: McClelland and Steward, Ltd., 1974), 70-89, and in Arend Lijphart, Thinking about Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule in Theory and Practice (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2008), 25-41.  See also Kurt Richard Luther, "Consociational Democracy,"  in Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought, ed., Paul A. B. Clarke and Joe Foweraker (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2001).  For an evaluation of earlier works on consociationalism and a bibliography, see M. P. C. M. van Schendelen, “Consociational Democracy: The Views of Arend Lijphart and Collected Criticisms," Political Science Reviewer 14 (1985): 143-183.  For a summary of consociationalism in Czech, see Blanka Říchová, Přehled moderních politologických teorií: Empiricko-analytický přístup v soudobépolitické vědě (Prague: Portal s.r.o., 2006), ch. 13.

2) Lijphart addresses necessary and sufficient conditions in Thinking about Democracy, 5.

3) Lijphart, Thinking about Democracy, Introduction (esp. 4-9), and “The Puzzle of Indian Democracy: A Consociational Interpretation” (esp. 45-52).  The chapter on India first appeared as an article in the American Political Science Review 90 (June 1996): 258-268.  The clearest explanation of Liphart’s theory in his early works is in Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977).  The number of favorable conditions in Lijphart’s theory varied over time.  In Democracy in Plural Societies, 54, for example, he identified only six.

4) On the subject of using undemocratic actions to preserve a democracy, see Giovanni Capoccia, Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interwar Europe (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), esp. ch. 3.

5) Arend Lijphart, “Democratic Political Systems: Types, Cases, Causes, and Consequences,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 1/1(1989): 40.  Lijphart reiterated this statement in the introduction of Thinking about Democracy, 8.

6) For the original categories in Lijphart’s consensual theory, see his Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 23-30 and ch. 12 (referenda).

7) Lijphart, “Democratic Political Systems,” 39-40.

8) Additions to the theory appear in Lijphart’s Patterns of Democracy, 3-4, 34-41, and ch. 3.  See also Arend Lijphart, "Consensus Democracy," in Encyclopedia of Democratic Thought; and Říchová, Přehled moderních politologických teorií, 214-221.

9) Lijphart, “Democratic Political Systems,” 41.  See also his Thinking about Democracy, 7.

10) Lijphart, “Democratic Political Systems,” 41.  He repeats these ideas in Thinking about Democracy, 8.