Democracy and Power-Sharing in Multinational States: Thematic Introduction

Matthijs Bogaards

Read the thematic introduction


Ever since the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart “discovered” consociational democracy in the late 1960s as a model for maintaining democracy in plural societies, power-sharing and democracy have been viewed as closely linked. The work by Lijphart on consociational democracy and later also consensus democracy constituted a breakthrough in the thinking about democracy in divided societies as it showed that the two are not as incompatible as was often thought and claimed, not least by authoritarian rulers trying to justify their non-democratic regimes by invoking the overriding need for national unity. Lijphart’s research demonstrated that democracy in divided societies was possible if elites cooperated, even when the masses remained divided. In a consociational democracy, elite cooperation takes the form of executive coalitions in which the leaders of all main social groups are represented; proportional representation in assemblies as well as a proportional allocation of offices and resources; autonomy for social groups in the spheres important to them, such as education; and a mutual veto for groups that see their vital interests at stake (Bogaards 2000).

For Lijphart and many with him, democracy in deeply divided societies is possible only when power is shared instead of monopolised, devolved rather than centralised. Majoritarian democracy is judged unsuitable for plural societies, because the winner-takes-all character and concentration of power allow a dominant group or coalition of groups to capture state power, relegating the minority into permanent opposition. The breakdown of democracy in many post-colonial states in Africa and Asia was attributed to the adoption of Westminster-style democracy, inherited from the (British) colonial powers. Power-sharing became synonymous with democracy.

Suggested bibliographic reference for this article:

Bogaards, Matthijs. Democracy and Power-Sharing in Multinational States: Thematic Introduction. IJMS: International Journal on Multicultural Societies. 2006, vol.8, no.2, pp. 119-126. UNESCO. ISSN 1817-4574.

About the Guest-Editor:

Matthijs Bogaards is assistant professor of comparative politics at Jacobs University Bremen (formerly International University Bremen). He studied political science and public administration at Leiden University, the Netherlands, and received two Master’s Degrees there in 1994. After his PhD in political science at the European University Institute in Florence in 2000, he served as visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, Central European University, Budapest, and permanent lecturer in comparative politics, University of Southampton, from 2001 to 2003. He joined Jacobs University in 2004. His research interests include democracy in divided societies, electoral system design, and party systems in new democracies, with a focus on Africa and Eastern Europe.
He has published several articles on consociational democracy and is preparing a book on power-sharing parties in divided societies. E-mail:

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