How do consociationalist systems facilitate corruption?

Author: Pyke Haans 

Consociationalism is a form of democratic power-sharing in diverse societies often utilised in post-conflict states. First coined by Arend Lijphart to describe the system of his native Netherlands, consociationalism is a political system resting on four ‘pillars’: “(1) a grand coalition of elites from different groups, (2) a veto for each group in important policy areas, (3) proportional representation in key institutions, and (4) group autonomy” (Lijphart, 1977). (Link leads to summary)   

Consociationalism is attractive in post-conflict or divided societies because these provisions divide the power between a number of actors or groups, and integrates them in the official state structures. This way every group has commitment to make the state function. And because each group can veto any development not in their group interests they can feel safe to not be dominated by a majority.

Examples of consociationalist systems include such diverse societies as Northern Ireland, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lebanon and North Macedonia.

Many criticisms of consociationalism exist, not in the least because certain consociationalist states such as Bosnia and Lebanon remain dysfunctional. There is an argument that consociationalism undermines opposition and is thus not very democratic. Further, proportional representation in government institutions is linked to patronage networks, and other provisions of consociationalism are hijacked for personal gain by actors. Such patronage networks and other forms of corruption can become deeply entrenched in consociationalist systems where minority parties have a relatively dominant position.

The topic of corruption might need some introduction but its detriments are quite clear. Corruption affects all layers of society, from the state of infrastructure to the chance of people to compete for positions based on personal merit to quality of healthcare to simply doing business. Corruption is seen as one of the main challenges for the further development of North Macedonia as it is a major barrier for EU Accession. The country places 81st in the world on the Global Corruption Index and a shared 111th place (together with, among others, Bosnia) on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Both low placings in Europe, but more or less common within the Balkan region. The high score on the Corruption Perceptions Index further indicates that people personally encounter corruption a lot in their lives. In short: corruption is a hindrance for both the economic as well as social development of the country.

Links between consociationalism and corruption

A number of scholars have written on the links between consociationalism and corruption. Jung & Shapiro describing the South African system outline the way that consociational systems often weaken opposition. Incentives for elites are to cooperate among each other, creating an ‘in-group’ of political elites that have no interest in weakening the position of the government that they gain from. Groups within the ruling coalition are unlikely to inform the voter of government failures, corruption and failures of policy, weakening the watchdog role that oppositional parties are supposed to fulfil. Plus minority vetoes can be used to stall political processes and the development of laws that impact the political elites of the respective groups; such as laws against corruption.

Then there is the relative strength of political parties, as described by B.G. Peters using the case of Belgium. In contrast to most Western European democracies where the power of parties declined in favour of the cabinet and prime-minister, in Belgium and other consociationalist governments parties remain powerful. This is because parties “…tend to control the allocation of positions and policy choices in government, the appointment of many officials, including judges, and most aspects of governing.”  (p. 1081) Indeed parties and thus party elites have considerable influence by controlling appointments in government institutions and as such control most levels of government. In Belgium ministries or other government organs are sometimes created simply for patronage reasons. Not only that, but party elites tend to be the ones to negotiate with other parties. Power is concentrated in the hands of this small group. B.G. Peters sums the role of parties up as following: “Belgian parties, and especially their leaderships, have been able to maintain this central position and to use the state for their own ends, just as the state has to some extent used them to provide some cohesion to the governing process.” (p. 1081)

This relative strength of political parties is also related to representation provisions of consociationalism. When representation of certain (ethnic) groups is guaranteed this group can become dominated by a single actor like a political party. This actor is then guaranteed to be in the coalition and can use their perennial position within the government to further extend their patronage networks and spread their influence. (Ethnic) quotas further entrench this phenomenon by offering positions not based on merit but simply on the basis of (ethnic)group-membership.

Barroso Cortés & Kéchichian  discuss corruption in Lebanon, and how politicians in that country use or abuse the provisions of their consociationalist government for personal gain. Lebanon is a troubled and deeply divided state that fractures along religious lines, consociationalism is the logical and perhaps only choice for a democratic political system in such a society.

One of the big difficulties in governing in Lebanon is that leaders are only beholden to their ‘own’ group: political success in Lebanon is essentially the doling out of goods and services to a patronage network in a politician’s own religious group. Consociationalism proves useful for such politicians because it neatly defines the groups to be represented, and indeed politically divides society up into groups that are presupposed to have different interests.

Intra-group conflict can be instrumentalised to either distract from political (corruption) scandals or to attract more resources for the own group, which can then be distributed to build and reward a patronage network. Corruption practices and patronage networks in this sense seem to be the very basis of Lebanon’s consociationalist system, and are practiced by all political elites along religious group lines. Because politicians that do not participate in patronage network building and resource distribution cannot build a power-base the system effectively rewards corrupt behaviour.



There are a number of ways in which consociationalism facilitates corruption. Mostly this has to do with the politicising of ethnic / religious / language differences and splitting society into neatly defined groups which are ripe for the establishment of patronage networks.

The cleavages in a consociationalist system are often dominated by political parties that are in some cases guaranteed to be part of the government. As seen in Belgium, political parties tend to have power of appointment in most government institutions and thus control most levels of government.

Consociationalist provisions further provide ample opportunities to reward the personal in-group network with state resources, and group quotas make appointments of loyalists within the group easy. Corruption tends to become a necessity to succeed for politicians as only those participating can build the necessary networks to advance as seen for instance in Lebanon.

Group cleavages are politicised and there are always opportunities to utilise inter-group conflicts and interests for both distraction of corruption issues and for allocating more state resources to the own group; which can then be distributed amongst loyalists. Finally, opposition is often weakened because all mayor parties are represented in the government and thus have a stake in not bringing to light its shortcomings.

Undoubtedly consociationalism is plagued by difficulties and challenges. But there is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Belgium and Northern Ireland today are (relatively) functional democracies. As always, societies that strive for protection of democracy and human rights face difficulties. The corruption issues in consociationalist systems require similar solutions as corruption in other systems: rule of law, separation of powers, independent judiciary and the existence of free press so non-governmental organisations and the media can act as watchdogs. The fight on corruption in consociationalism needs constant vigilance and thorough judicial procedures and is always of great importance for society.

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