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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Consensual Democracy: A Failure in Flagrante Delicto

Whenever a critique of the so-called "consensual democracy" of the dysfunctional failed state of Lebanon is  raised, a volley of apologetic arguments is usually marshaled to drown it. Consensual democracy, an apparently unique Lebanese invention, is essentially an oxymoron that the blind Lebanese, in their utterly incompetent and ignorant understanding of genuine democracy, practice and defend as a fig leaf for the lemon republic that this country is. It is, they claim, the best one can get in a primitive, tribal, sectarian, and ultra-religious society such as ours, and we should all be grateful to God Almighty and to Lebanese "genius" for having found the most perfect political system that marries modern democracy with a primitive society.

Let me first define "consensual democracy", as I understand it. By definition, the "democratic" process involves, in one essential part of it called elections, a competition between candidates for representing their constituents in government, such that the candidate with the most votes represents the majority of his/her constituents. Candidates claiming to want to represent their people offer a vision, a program, a roadmap aiming at translating the will of the people into laws that regulate the administrative and political life of the country. The fact that a candidate earns a majority of votes in elections does not make that candidate necessarily the best or his/her ideas necessarily the most appropriate. As a group, the people of a district or a country may choose a bad or unsuitable candidate to represent them, because the outcome of an election is the average decision of large numbers of individual voters. In the US, for instance, the American people twice voted for George W. Bush, an absolute idiot who ruined the country, and the Republicans have just chosen an even more backward and incompetent man, Donald Trump, as their candidate for president. But elections provide for a scientific, numbers-based certainty, in the sense that we have a definite number of people who have chosen this or that candidate, and numbers are fixed, unalterable objective facts. Elections, ballots, votes, when done properly, are the only thing we know for sure in a democracy.

By definition too, "consensus" is a general agreement between persons over an issue, and that agreement is drawn not by a vote or election, but by discussion and negotiation. So when we say that there is consensus between a number of people, it means that a non-measured majority of these people agree on the issue. Also, consensus can only be between persons; it cannot be between groups or communities because a discussion or negotiation between these large numbers is not feasible. If you have to vote to choose representatives who then can participate in the consensus process, you are back to a democratic process in which consensus is not needed since people are directly voting. Again, as in a democratic vote, whether or not a consensus exists between a group of people does not necessarily make the outcome correct or right.  In fact, because the decision is left to the whims of a few individuals, it is even less likely to be a good decision as described below.

Therefore, there is a built-in contradiction in the term "consensual democracy". If there is a democracy, then people vote directly on the issue, or their duly elected representatives themselves vote on the issue. In consensual democracy, as practiced in Lebanon, people vote for representatives who then decide among themselves without voting the fate of a particular law or issue. For example, electing a president in Lebanon is not by direct popular vote. Rather, it is the parliament which elects the president. So the current stalemate in which no president has been elected for more than 2 years is essentially the direct proof of the failure of consensual democracy. A direct popular vote would quickly bring a president to office, but as things stand now, disputes between representatives who are unable to reach a consensus has brought the political life of the country to a halt. So here are some of the deleterious consequences of "consensual democracy":

Consequence 1: An agreement reached by "consensus" between people's representatives is in fact  disconnected from the will of the people. It renders elections an exercise in futility, since an agreement between the representatives - absent a vote - circumvents the will of the people who elected the representatives. As a result, this agreement more often than not represents the interests of the representatives, but not the interests of the people.

Consequence 2: This is fertile ground for corruption, backroom deals, handshakes, bribes, and other sordid means of agreement, because it is easy to bribe one individual and get him/her to join, or break rank with, the "consensus". This is a chronic problem with Lebanon's corrupt political establishment.

Consequence 3: In Lebanon, the fact that the representatives are elected on the basis of their sectarian identity makes these representatives at least equally loyal to established non-elected religious authorities as they may be to the voters who elected them. This further scuttles the democratic process because another, non-elected, stakeholder - the religious establishments - has a say in the consensus.

Consequence 4:  "Consensual democracy" explains why in Lebanon voters never hold their representatives accountable, because people never know how their elected representative voted on a given law or issue. Consensus is always made in shady undisclosed discussions, never by a vote based on conscience. Because of the lack of transparency, the representative justifies an unsatisfactory outcome by blaming the "other side" for the consensus decision. The consensus gives the elected representative a deniability of responsibility, and renders him immune to accountability.

Consensual Democracy has never worked. It can never work. Lebanon is a failed state because its political system is an oligarchical theocracy parading itself as a democracy. In this country, elected representatives are beholden to the religious establishments because they are elected as representatives of their religious community, and not of their individual constituents. And when you have a religious oligarchy with financial interests shared among its otherwise hostile and inimical members, the last thing they worry about is the will of the people. That is why in Lebanon when members of the political establishment agree among themselves (i.e. there is consensus), they rob their own people. When they disagree (i.e. there is no consensus), they fight among themselves leading, in best case scenarios, to stalemate (as is the case these days), and in worst case scenarios, to civil war, massacres and destruction.

H.A.

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