Magoosh GRE

Evaluation of Lijphart’s model of “consensus” democracy

| March 14, 2015

1. Introduction
My ideal of democracy aligns closely to Lijphart’s model of “consensus” democracy, which I will be discussing at length in this essay. For me, it is the ideal system because it is the most capable of maximizing the level of representation given to the widest possible amount of the electorate. I will also discuss the notion of “direct democracy,” which heightens citizens’ ability to become an integral, active part of the political system they live in, as well as being able to ensure legislation remains beneficial to them. Lijphart characterizes the consensus model as being based on “inclusiveness, bargaining and compromise” (Lijphart, 1999, pp2), and “tries to share, disperse, and limit power in a variety of ways” (Lijphart, 1999, pp2). My ideal consensus model would be one that implements a multi-party, power-sharing coalition, elected through a system of proportional representation; as opposed to a “majoritarian” democracy, where power is concentrated to a one party majority, often been elected through a disproportionate system, and it is these elements that I will be discussing within the essay.

2. Direct Democracy and Referendum
One of the best examples of consensus democracy is Switzerland. The country is also one of the leading advocates of “direct democracy”, a system that is becoming increasingly popular through Western Europe and which is characterized by its high levels of public participation in a country’s political system. Through the use of referendum, as “supplements, but not substitutes for institutions of representative democracy,” (Frey, 1994, pp338) citizens can challenge their governments on specific issues they disagree with, as well as issues that change their constitution. Referendums are generally assumed to lead to a greater dialogue between politicians and citizens than would occur otherwise, and, by having the opportunity to be regularly involved in political decisions, it allows the electorate to become more politically active than if voting capacity was limited to elections, as Frey claims;
“…referenda stimulate discussion among citizens, and between politicians and voters. The public-good situation of discussion which benefits all citizens is transformed into a private good as the participants are expected by other citizens to have opinions.” (Frey, 1994, pp339)
However, I feel it is important to note that Switzerland has a very low voter turnout, averaging at 44% (, 2011), whilst other parts of Europe that don’t have such a privileged electoral system, Italy and Germany, for example, often average 80%+ (, 2011).
There are three types of referendum in Switzerland; firstly, legislation that will change the constitution has to be put to a mandatory referendum, which is open to all eligible voters. If groups are able to obtain enough signatures (50,000 within 100 days) they can force an optional referendum on any law passed; it then has to win a majority within the voting public to pass. Citizens can also call for a referendum on aspects of the constitution if they are able to acquire 100,000 signatures, causing the proposition to get passed through the two Chambers of Parliament and put to a popular vote. This system of referendum is not rare in Europe, but the flexibility that the Swiss model demonstrates is. The Italian constitution, for example, allows an “abrogative” referendum to repeal a law if 500,000 signatures are collected. Unlike the Swiss system however, where any aspect of the constitution, or any law passed is open to the possibility of a referendum, the Italian system only applies to certain areas of legislation, and excludes finical/budget laws, amnesties and international treaties; and it is not obligatory for local governments to allow local referendums (Wagschal, 1997, pp228).

3. Proportional Representation
Another key element of the consensus model is the use of a system of proportional representation, the aim of which is to “divide parliamentary seats among the parties in proportion to the votes they receive” (Lijphart, 1999, pp38). Proportional representation, which is widespread across Europe, generally leads to coalition governments, as in Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, where rule is shared between parties without large majorities. Britain, however, is an example of “pure” (Lijphart, 1999, pp7) majoritarian democracy. Whereas vote distribution in Switzerland is spread proportionally, the British system still relies on the winning of a majority, or “first past the post.” This, invariably, leads to a two-party system, where rule is centralized to one particular party whilst the other sits in opposition. As Lijphart states, this allows one party to “wield vast amounts of political power to rule as the representative of and in the interest of a majority that it is not of overwhelming proportions. A large minority is excluded from power and condemned to the role of opposition.” (Lijphart, 1999, pp10)

This last sentence has particular importance when comparing democratic ethics; within the Swiss model, parties who have not won an outright majority, but yet have considerable support within the country are included in the coalition, and thus, are included in legislative decisions; in Britain, the opposition party, despite its often large support base, has very little power over legislation enacted by the majority party, who are relatively free to enact policy as they see fit. This means that within the two-party system there is usually a large section of society that finds little representation in the political ideology of their country, as well as the policies enacted by it, a fact that I consider very undemocratic. It is also interesting to note that the electorate within Switzerland can be read as its own party. Direct democracy has become an
“instrument of institutionalized opposition in the Swiss political system, where optional referendum and its possible threat is the most salient instrument” (Wagschal, 1997, pp230)
Here, the ability of the electorate to challenge not only government legislation, but also their own constitution, allows them to influence policy in the way that an opposition party would. They also act as a guide for legislation, with the threat of their disapproval certainly acting as a barrier for more radical acts.

4. Federal Governance and Centralization
Another major difference between the British and Swiss systems is the centralization of power. Switzerland can be considered a federal government, with power decentralized among regional “cantons,” each of whom have their own local government. The central, or federal, government unities these canton, and is responsible for policies that have national concern, such as “foreign policy, national defense and the mint.” (Kendall, 2000) As each canton is run individually, it allows for areas to enact policies that are beneficial specifically to them, rather than being tied to a unitary system. In a unitary state, central government is supreme and administrative divisions (i.e. their particular form of canton) are only able to exercise powers delegated to them. As Lijphart states,
“There are no clearly designated geographical and functional areas from which the parliamentary majority and cabinet are barred.” (Lijphart, 1999, pp17)
Britain, as well as France and Italy, still adopt this unitary system, with power in the various constituencies dictated by the policy of the Cabinet. Formal federal government can be found in four European countries – Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany (Colmer, 2008, pp11). Germany has quite a similar political system to Switzerland, and had been proclaimed an “underdeveloped direct democracy.” (Wagschal, 1997, pp238) Power being decentralized from its coalition to sixteen states. Each of these has their own constitution, and, like the Swiss cantons, is able to govern themselves independently aside from national issues. Each state permits local referendum, but not national referendum, unlike the overwhelming extent of Swiss referendums. These referendums, like those in Italy and Denmark, exclude legislation on budgets, taxies and salaries, which I find particularly unusual considering these are three of the major concerns of any electorate, and goes some way to highlight just how unique the Swiss system is.

5. Conclusion
Of Lijphart’s two models of democracy, I believe that the consensus model is the most effective and most democratic system to implement. The easiest way to compare the two models is to contrast different countries that use them, for example by comparing Switzerland, a consensus democracy, against Britain, a majoritarian democracy. Whilst Britain has a two-party system, meaning that one party is awarded approaching absolute legislative rule whilst the other is cast into opposition, Switzerland’s government is a coalition made up of all the major political parties. This is a result of the differing electoral systems within the two models; the consensus model uses proportional representation, in which votes are divided proportionally among parties or candidates, whereas majoritarian models use disproportionate systems, such as the “first past the post” system employed in Britain. The obvious advantage of Switzerland’s coalition compared to Britain’s singular party is that the inclusion of more than one party in the legislative procedure allows a much wider section of the electorate’s voice to be included, rather than a legislation that only represents a singular political ideology.
Switzerland is also an institution of “direct democracy.” Within its constitution, all citizens have the right to directly challenge legislation through a variety of referenda, and are obliged to vote on all legislation that alters the constitution. Whereas the Swiss are able to force a referendum on any legislation they see fit, similar systems in Europe, like those found in Germany or Denmark, exclude legislation on subjects such as taxation and the budget. Referendums are commonly perceived to increase voter participation and awareness of political activity, and my ideal democracy would be one populated by engaged, interested citizens. Voter turnout data for Switzerland, however, undermines this assumption. The final element of consensus democracy I have discussed is the implementation of a federal system of government. Power is decentralized from the coalition to its regional divisions, who are then able to self-govern, and pass legislation that is best suited to their particular community, leaving the central government free to deal with matters that concern the nation as a whole. This can be seen in Switzerland, where each individual canton is able to act independently, as are the Landers in Germany, who are also decentralized from their federal coalition government. In Britain, my example of a majoritarian system, the divisions are centralized under the Cabinet, and are only able to enact power and legislation that has been delegated to them, rather than the level of independence that regions under a federal government enjoy.


Colomer, J.M., 2008. Comparative European Politics. London: Taylor & Francis.

Frey, B.S., 1994. Direct Democracy: Politico-Economic Lessons from Swiss Experience. The American Economic Review, 84(2) pp338-342

Kendal, F. 2000. The Swiss Cantonal System. Gilbert, AZ: ISIL

Lijphart, A., 1999. Patterns of Democracy; Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Voter Turnout data, 2011. Voter Turnout in Western Europe since 1945. [online] Available at

Wagschal, U., 1997. Direct Democracy and Public Policymaking. Journal of Public Policy, 17(2) pp223-245

Category: Politics Essay Examples