Can Multi-Communal Democracies Work?

After Years of Displacement, Mahammid Group Returns to North Darfur
Can Multi-Communal Democracies Work? - Iannis Carras

Introduction: Mill and Acton on the nation state

Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prime facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart ... It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions, that the boundaries of governments should coincide in the main with those of nationalities. - John Stuart Mill1

That intolerance of social freedom which is natural to absolutism is sure to find a corrective in the national diversities, which no other force could so efficiently provide. The coexistence of several nations under the same State is a test, as well as the best security of its freedom. It is also one of the chief instruments of civilization; and, as such, it is in the natural and providential order, and indicates a state of greater advancement than the national unity which is the ideal of modem liberalism. - Lord Acton2

Though John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton were both members of parliament for the Liberal Party, they were unusual parliamentarians. Mill first stood as a parliamentary candidate for Westminster in 1865. The historian Lord Acton represented his Shopshire constituency from 1859 to 1865. Between them, Acton in "Nationality" and Mill in "Considerations on Representative Government," grappled with the question of the advantages and problems associated with the national or multi-communal state.3

Acton and Mill underline a dilemma that is very much with us today. In 1991-2, the European Union was divided over an appropriate response to the growing crisis in Yugoslavia The principle of national self-determination triumphed; Croatia then Bosnia-Herzegovina were recognized as independent states. To paraphrase Mill, the sentiment of Croatian, Serbian, and perhaps even Bosnian nationality, existed in force so there was a prime facie case for separating the members of each nationality, granting each a government to themselves apart. Though they may have disagreed over the details of separation, regional leaders seemed to agree on the principle of national self-determination.4

It would be a mistake to belittle Mill's arguments. The nation-state is an astoundingly successful and effective organizing principle precisely because it draws on sentiments of belonging, unity and fellowship. Judging the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires of his day, and no doubt drawing on the twenty years from 1836 to 1856 when he had charge of the British East India Company's relations with the Indian states, Mill's claim that free institutions are nearly impossible to maintain in a country made up of different nationalities is reasonable. The former Yugoslavia, for example, was not a free state.

But Lord Acton too was perceptive:

By making the state and the nation commensurate with each other in theory, it reduces practically to a subject condition all other nationalities that may be within the boundary ... the inferior races are exterminated or reduced to servitude, or outlawed or put in a condition of dependence.5

The creation of a nation state unconstrained by external forces or internal checks and balances undermines symbiosis. Where populations are mixed, fearful minorities have every reason to resist. The results are by now well documented:

You abolished our government, annihilated our laws, suppressed our authorities, took away our lands, turned us out of our houses, denied us the rights of men, made us outcasts and outlaws in our own land.6

The actions of Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia proved no exception.

This then is the dilemma left for us by Mill and Acton. Is it possible to create a free and democratic multi-communal state that enjoys the loyalty of its citizens? In other words, is it possible to create multi-communal democracies?

This article attempts to provide the necessary framework for an answer. The first section discusses how democracy combined with nationalism under­mines multicommunal states. Nevertheless, an understanding of the basis of democracy provides guidance for the creation of the institutions that may help a multi-communal state work. In the second section, the mechanisms and institutions of multi-communal democracies are touched upon, using the relatively short-lived experience of multi-communal democracy in Lebanon as an example. Finally, an electoral system for a multi-communal Bosnia-Herzegovina is proposed in light of Lebanon. Though there is no longer the possibility of a multi-communal Yugoslavia, a multi-communal Bosnia-Herzegovina may still be resuscitated.

This discussion is relevant for many countries in Europe and beyond: Northern Ireland, FYR Macedonia, Georgia and Sri Lanka to name but a few. It aims to reveal some of the particular difficulties faced by multi-communal democracies and to point towards possible solutions.

Democracy and the Multi-Communal State

To understand the effect democracy has on multi-communal states, it is first necessary to ask what makes democracy different from other forms of government. The term is derived from demos, meaning people and kratos, power, thus democracy means the rule of the people. But the word is not enough; on a surface level, the rule of the people has certain distinguishing features, while on a deeper level it is justified by a set of political ideals.

Until this century, democracy's minimum distinguishing feature was universal adult male suffrage which led to universal adult suffrage when the vote was extended to women.7 A further distinguishing feature is that the vote should be genuinely free, resulting in significant changes in a democratic country's political scene from time to time.

Turning to the ideological framework that underpins democratic govern­ment, an examination of one of the earlier justifications of the democratic state proves useful:

The constitution is called a democracy because rule is not by the few but by the majority. In private disputes all are equal before the law ... freedom is the hallmark of our public life, and as regards the pursuits of daily life, we do not frown on our neighbor if he does as he please... - Pericles8

As Pericles explains, the rule of the people was justified by liberty and equality. In the ancient world, liberty was also a crucial constitutional concept associated with political participation in the public sphere and personal freedom in the private sphere.9 Equality could mean natural equality or the democratic argument that any citizen's opinion was equally valid if not equally correct.10 It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the implications of liberty and equality in detail.11 What matters here is that democracy is both a process and an ideology justified by a set of principles.

The democratic process may, however, undermine and weaken the ideology. As de Tocqueville put it: "Habits form in freedom that may one day become fatal to freedom."12 Constitutions therefore restrict the unadulterated power of the majority, which is the democratic process, in order to ensure a democratic end. Such an end reinforces the logical and ideological basis for democracy.

The situation in multi-communal states should by now be evident. When there is a fixed majority and a fixed minority, democratic processes will usually dominate democratic ends or principles. The result will be tyranny rather than democracy as the majority always imposes its will on the distinct minority. Democracy may be justified on grounds of liberty and equality, but the minority population is both less free and less equal than the dominant group. Furthermore, the state will be unstable, resulting from fearful and resentful minorities sharing resources and living space with the majority group unwilling to share its power.

The introduction of democracy in multi-communal states by and large confirms this analysis. In the former Yugoslavia, each community's fears of becoming a political minority, and therefore less than free and less than equal in a democratic state manipulated by a hostile majority, was exploited by power-hungry politicians.13 It follows that democratization was itself part of the process that led to war in the former Yugoslavia.

However, this division of democracy into processes and ideological principles also suggests a solution for multi-communal states. If normal democratic processes, such as "one person, one vote," undermine the ideology that justifies democratic government, it might be possible to redesign those processes. The experiment with multi-communal democracy in Lebanon between 1943 and the mid-1970s permits an investigation into the mechanisms and institutions that were designed to ensure that democratic processes did not result in an unjust distribution of power.

Mechanisms and Institutions: The Case of Lebanon

The history of Lebanon during the last century is complicated; the international setting continually influenced the interaction between different communities in the country itself.14 The aim here is not to outline Lebanon's modern history, and still less to comment on outside interventions that strengthened or weakened the Lebanese state, but to point to the country's internal complexity and to discuss the mechanisms and institutions created to allow the country to function.

Lebanon is a fragmented country. Although all Lebanese speak: Arabic, it is divided on religious lines between Christians and Muslims. The Christians are themselves divided between Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics and an array of other minority groups including Nestorians, Jacobites, several Armenian sects, Assyrians and Chaldians. The Muslims in tum are divided among the Sunins, the Shiites and the Druze.

The proportion of each of these groups is the subject of considerable controversy as the last government census was taken in 1932 during the French Mandate. In 1932 the Christians were 51.3% of the population. Of these, the Maronites were 28.8%, the Greek Orthodox 9.8%, the Greek Catholics 5.9% and other Christians 6.8%. Of the 48.8% who were Muslim, 22.4% were Sunni, 19.6% Shiite, and 6.8% Druze.15

Since 1932, only estimates can be made of the size of the different communities. Nevertheless, it is clear that emigration and lower birth rates have reduced the Christian proportion of the population from slightly over half to well under 40%. In contrast, the Shiites have become the largest community in Lebanon with about a third of the population.16

Lebanese demography is then extraordinarily complex. In the absence of an external power such as France, Syria or Israel controlling Lebanon by force, the need for a constitution that balances the interests of the various communities is evident. The system created for this purpose in Lebanon was confessionalism. Its aim was to ensure an equitable distribution of power between Lebanon's religious communities. In particular, no community was to be excluded from the democratic process. The rest of this section will discuss the structure, successes and failures of confessionalism.

The origins of confessionalism are to be found in the period when Lebanon formed part of the Ottoman Empire. By 1864, Mount Lebanon had been divided into seven districts, each of them sending representatives to the council in a confessional ratio. For example, the mixed area of Jazzin sent one Maronite, one Druze and one Muslim and so on. The councilors were chosen by the heads of the religious denominations rather than elected. When the French were awarded the Mandate of Syria and Lebanon in 1920, the seeds for confessional democracy had already been sown.17

The French enlarged the original area of Mount Lebanon, including the Biqa plain as well as the cities of Sidon, Tyre and Tripoli in the expanded state.18 A Constitution for the new Lebanon was created under the auspices of the French Mandate and came into force in 1926. It largely corresponded to the wishes of the Beirut bourgeoisie as verified in an official poll of their preferences.19 The text of the constitution was drawn up mainly by the writer Michel Chiha at the head of a Statutory Commission.

The 1926 Constitution served with a few modifications as the base for political authority in Lebanon after the declaration of independence from France in 1943.20 In 1943, an unwritten National Pact between Maronite and Sunin leaders completed the process of developing a separate political identity. This Pact must be considered an integral part of the constitution.21 How then did the Lebanese constitution work?

Executive authority was vested within the President of the Republic who was always a Maronite, as agreed in the National Pact. The President was elected by the Chamber of Deputies for one six year term and was eligible for reelection only after a period of six years out of office. The President appointed the country's ministers and Prime Minister and could also dismiss any of them.

According to the terms of the National Pact, the Prime Minister was always a Sunni Muslim. The ministers were also appointed on a confessional basis. In practice, the cabinet was extremely important; it was only by including all regions and all denominations in the cabinet that the government could be sure its authority would prevail even in the most remote, clannish and feudal regions of Lebanon. As a result, the cabinet contained its own opposition within it.22 The head of the armed forces was always a Maronite and his deputy always a Droze.

Legislative authority was vested in the Chamber of Deputies, elected every four years. As in Ottoman times, each electoral district was appointed seats on a confessional basis. According to the National Pact, the Chamber always had to include a number of deputies divisible by eleven, so that there would be six deputies belonging to Christian communities for every five deputies belonging to Muslim communities. If an electoral district were to elect four councilors, two Maronites, a Druze and a Sunni for example, there would be three separate competitions in that district, one for each of the communities to be elected. Each voter voted in all the competitions, whether the candidate was from his own community or not. A voter in the above district would therefore vote three times. Similarly, the Druze deputy would have to appeal to all communities in the electoral district in order to win. Electoral lists could be formed in these multi-member constituencies so that candidates campaigning for the same votes, but not standing against one another, could maximize their strength.23

The Lebanese electoral system was one of the most successful features of the confessional state. It ensured that those elected to positions of power in the Chamber of Deputies had to appeal to the members of other communities apart from their own. In these circumstances, politicians seeking election had no interest in alienating other communities. On the contrary, the votes of other minorities were essential for each politician's political survival. Elections were frequently fiercely competitive and huge sums were spent to ensure victory. On average, the elected candidate won about 60% of the votes.24

However, in several aspects the Lebanese electoral system failed. As there were no parliamentary groups based on religion in the Chamber of Deputies, its members could not adequately represent their communities. As a result, specifically confessional problems were not sufficiently debated within the Chamber.

Furthermore, the whole electoral process was skewed by the power and prestige of the local clan leaders, or zuama (singular zaim). These clan leaders were particularly strong in the Maronite, Shiite and Druze communities and frequently exercised greater power than the government in their own constituencies. A zaim's task was to provide patronage for his clients and constituents, create jobs, and settle disputes.25 Electoral success was of great importance for a zaim. It legitimized his position and offered further opportunities for patronage.26

The power of the zuama meant that real political parties did not exist in the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies, except as temporary groupings of individuals. Furthermore, the absence of political parties and the lack of a set program for the deputies meant that though the Chamber of Deputies was supposed to be the legislature, in practice it was notable to legislate.27 Those seeking political reform turned to parties outside the parliamentary system, such as the Maronite Kataib, which could maintain its ideological purity without the compromises required by participation in the Chamber of Deputies.

As a result, the Council of Ministers became a substitute for the Chamber of Deputies. The need for full regional and communal representation made the Council of Ministers in effect a smaller version of the Chamber of Deputies. The Council of Ministers also had the advantage of secrecy, allowing debate on communal questions. The dominance of the Council of Ministers also strengthened the Maronite President, who appointed all ministers, including the Pihne Minister. Since the President was not directly elected himself, he did not have to appeal to the Lebanese electorate.

In theory, the Lebanese system was parliamentary; for all practical purposes, it was a presidential system. Such a system benefited the Maronites more than anyone else by ensuring the president would come from their community. However, as the demographic balance in Lebanon shifted, resentment from other communities grew, especially from the Shiites. The weakness of the Chamber of Deputies increasingly brought political changes taking place outside the democratic system into the spotlight. To survive, the confessional system in Lebanon had to reform, but reform was prevented through the power of the zuama. The system continued largely unchanged until a new influx of Palestinian refugees in 1967 divided the country. The Palestinians had no legal voice in the Lebanese confessionalist system. With.many Maronites feeling threatened. Lebanon and the Lebanese confessionalist system were on the verge of the abyss.28

By the standards of the Middle East, the Lebanese confessional system worked well while it lasted. Elections were' freely contested. Government positions changed hands in an orderly manner. There was freedom of the press and expression. Economic development in Lebanon during this period was greater than in neighboring countries, though the gap between rich and poor widened.

In addition, surveys seem to show that despite, or perhaps because of, the bloodshed of recent years, the majority of Lebanese believe confessional democracy is the only way to put their country together again.29 For example, 80% of respondents in a trade union survey of 1982 supported the view that political decisions must be made only with the cooperation and agreement of all major religious communities.30 The Document of National Understanding, which concluded the Taif negotiations in October 1989 and marked the beginning of the end of the Lebanese civil war, implicitly endorsed the National Pact with its emphasis on confessionalism and inter-communal cooperation.31

On the other hand, subsequent events have been a harsh judge of the Lebanese confessional system.32 Though the electoral system succeeded in sidelining nationalism in the Chamber of Deputies, it did not succeed in creating a strong and efficient state. Time and again, external events showed the limitations of the Lebanese modus vivendi. The constraints of the Lebanese system prevented the resolution of political pressures with negative long-term results. In the end, the inability of the Lebanese confessionalist system to reform itself in light of the inadequacy of its constitutional structures, changing demography, and growing economic inequality proved to be a large part of its failure.

The Lessons of Lebanon and Elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The Lebanese confessionalist model is useful for discussing the constitu­tions of other multi-communal states, both in terms of its successes and its failures. It would be foolish to pretend that the experience of Lebanese confessionalist democracy could be easily transferred to other countries. Nevertheless, certain observations may shed new light on the problem of multi-communal states.

First, confessionalist democracy was the only viable democratic model for Lebanon. The Lebanese system may have been deficient or insufficiently flexible in its detail, but no other democratic system could ensure the collaboration and hence equality of Lebanon's many minorities. Communalism alters the processes of democracy in order to achieve greater freedom and equality for all the communities in a state.

Second, though the number of minority groups in Lebanon meant the nation state was not a viable alternative, even in Lebanon the creation of a multi-communal state was by no means easy.

Third, certain features of the Lebanese Constitution may encourage cooperation in other multi-communal states. Cross-voting for example, where one community contributes to the election of another community's delegates, ensured that elected Lebanese leaders had no incentive to stir up civil strife. However, any system of cross-voting applied elsewhere should not hinder the creation of political parties.

Fourth, certain features of the Lebanese Constitution should be avoided in other multi-communal states. For example a directly elected President combined with an appropriate electoral system would force the head of state to appeal to all communities in a country.

Finally, Lebanon shows that the constitutions of multi-communal states must allow sufficient flexibility for equitable reform. The possibility of demographic change must be taken into account. Multi-communal states must be efficient and effective states; otherwise, democratic structures become subservient to other factors, as was the case in Lebanon.

Bosnia-Herzegovina resembles Lebanon in some respects. In both Bosnia and in Lebanon, for example, a group that perceived itself to be the dominant majority in a region felt threatened by demographic and political change. In Bosnia, the Serb proportion of the population fell from 42.8%in 1961 to 31.4% in 1991, while the Muslim population increased from 25.6% to 43.7% over the same period.33 Bosnia, however, did not have the same tradition of communalism as Mount Lebanon; the shift in the Bosnian population resulted in an even greater political shift with the introduction of democracy.

Furthermore, the large number of minorities in Lebanon compared to Bosnia makes achieving a balance of power there easier. Prima facie, the institutions for a multi-communal democracy are more easily created in Lebanon.

Though other comparisons and contrasts could be found, it is important to end with an analysis of solutions that could strengthen a multi-communal state like Bosnia. That such solutions are required is beyond question. Bosnia's economy is held hostage by political strife and the inadequacies of the country's constitution.34 Whether the necessary will can be found is another matter. This essay will confine itself to the question of elections to the legislature.

One of the persistent problems emerging in contemporary semi-partitioned Bosnia is the unpopularity of politicians who try to build bridges with other communities. The solution, drawing on the analysis of democracy in multi­communal states, is to accept that citizens must be listed as belonging to one group or another and require them to vote, not just in the election of their own community's representatives, but in that of all the others as well. This is an extension of the Lebanese confessionalist electoral system.35

In Bosnia, seats in the legislature could be apportioned according to the relative populations of the three communities. However, each community would have a certain percentage in the other communities' elections, the actual votes cast being scaled down. Bosnian Serbs would have 33% of the seats in the federal parliament, but would also have 20% of the votes for Bosnian Muslim seats and 20% of the votes for Bosnian Croat seats. Similarly Bosnian Muslims would have 43% of the seats in the federal parliament, but would also have 20% of the votes for Bosnian Serb seats in parliament. This "Cross-Determination" can be combined with a party list proportional electoral system.36

This system, unlike the Lebanese system, would not prevent parties from developing. A Bosnian Serb politician may chose to ignore Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat votes, but a Bosnian Serb politician who chose to campaign for inter-communal harmony would have an inbuilt advantage because 40% of the vote for Bosnian Serb representatives would not be cast by Bosnian Serbs. The numbers are not important, but the principle of confessionalism most definitely is.37 Reform of the Bosnian electoral system would be an important step towards the creation of a multi-communal Bosnian state.38


Can multi-communal democracies work? Creating the institutions for multi-communal democracies is a difficult process, requiring an understanding of democracy and an appreciation of the historical successes and failures of multi­communal states. Establishing institutions is the first step towards developing attitudes that allow multi-communal democracies to work.

The preference for the preservation of multi-communal societies where they exist is both practical, moral and aesthetic. Practical, because in an increasingly interconnected world, division into national-states makes little sense; moral, because dividing causes immeasurable hardship; and aesthetic, because diversity in human communities is both exciting and admirable.

Lord Acton claimed multi-communal states were "one of the chief instruments of civilization" and part of "the natural and providential order," and perhaps he was right. But in the end, it is human beings who live in multi-communal states; whether they can live together peacefully according to Acton's "providential order" depends, in part, on them.39