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Majoritarian and Consensus Models of Democracy


There exist numerous types of democracies and each of them has its own peculiarities. The scholars managed to work out concrete distinctions between two of these types, namely majoritarian and consensus democracy. The majoritarian and consensus models of democracy are absolutely opposite to each other with their main differences being party system, the presence/absence of a written Constitution, distribution of power, etc; France and Germany are two countries which can be referred to these opponent types of democracy, though none of them exhibits all the features of a separate model of democracy.

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The Majoritarian Model of Democracy

In case with the Majoritarian model of democracy one separate political party constitutes the majority in the Parliament. Majoritarian democracy can be defined as a democracy “in which a winning party or coalition of parties [can] exercise virtually limitless power within a political system” (Caramani 125). The majority will is insistently expressed in the electorate and manifestation of this will can hardly be hindered due to the Rule of Law. The perfect realization of this rule takes place,

  1. in accordance with the originally intended and understood meaning of the directives of legitimate, democratically accountable law-making authorities,
  2. cast in the form of intelligible rules binding on citizens, governmental officials, and judges alike,
  3. as identified and elucidated in any interpretive process guided by publicly accessible norms and characterized by reason-giving, and
  4. consistent with legitimate public purposes and sound, shared principles of political morality (Murphy 3).

If at least any of these principles is not observed, the Rule of Law is regarded as not completely realized and, correspondingly, the manifestation of the majority will is hindered.

The main features of the Majoritarian democracy are majoritarian election techniques, referendum, and a unitary state with civic republicanism being correspondent to all the requirements of a majoritarian democracy (Lane and Ersson 254). One of such requirements is necessary participation of minorities in all the decisions related to politics. Minorities’ having their own influence on the politics is obligatory for the majoritarian democracy; this is what distinguishes it from the minoritarian model (which is often referred to as deliberative democracy where the veto players have increased powers) (Lane and Ersson 254). Though the minorities’ voice is quite valuable in the governments with majoritarian democracy, they still are so few that they can hardly influence political decision-making. This accounts for the share of vote being disproportional in such governments with larger parties gaining the biggest share of vote and smaller ones gaining the smallest. This is why such a type of democracy is called namely “majoritarian”.

Therefore, there are several main features of a majoritarian model of democracy. First of all, this is the concentration of executive power within one political party. Secondly, this is the dominance of two parties during the elections, the major and the minor ones, which is necessary for giving the voice to the minority (Saward 53). Thirdly, this is a centralized or unitary government. And finally, states with majority model of democracy (for instance, the United Kingdom) do not have a written constitution. This all makes the majoritarian model of democracy opposite to the consensus one.

The Consensus Model of Democracy

The consensus democracy is built on compromise and inclusiveness. The basic principle of the consensus model of democracy is integrating as many opinions in the political decision-making process as it is possible: “Instead of being satisfied with narrow decision-making majorities, it (the consensus model) seeks to maximize the size of these majorities. Its rules and institutions aim at broad participation in government and broad agreement on policies that the government should pursue” (Vetter 118). In addition to this, the consensus democracy permits the citizens’ participating not only in decision-making, but informing of political agenda as well.

The main consensual feature of the consensus model of democracy is that a great amount of people is admitted to governing with the interests of each of them being valued and with government’s trying to settle all the possible conflicts and disagreements. This, however, does not mean that the consensus democracy differs from the majoritarian one in preferring majority rule to the minority one; instead, “it accepts the majority rule only as a minimum requirement: instead of being satisfied with narrow decision-making majorities, it seeks to minimize the size of these majorities” (Clarke and Foweraker 90). In this sense, consensus democracy is similar to consociationalism and proportional democracy which also have power-sharing as their main principle.

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Another important feature which distinguishes the consensus model of democracy from the majoritarian one is proportional electoral system. Such a system can be regarded as a “basis for a consensual decision-making process” (Vetter 118). It results in multiple parties forming the government, as well as producing coalition governments the main purpose of which is to reach consensus. Such a consensual principle is further supported by a corporative interest group system which accounts for the opinions and suggestions of all the parties constituting the government.

Thus, the consensus model of democracy can be characterized by features completely opposite to the majoritarian one. It’s being consensual means that all the political decisions within the government are corporate with each of the multiple parties’ opinions being considered and taken into account. The most important feature of the consensus democracy is power-sharing (this is practiced in such countries as Switzerland, Lebanon, Finland, etc). Another one is multiparty systems with the shares of vote being distributed approximately equally among all the parties. Other features are interest groups the main aim of which is reaching consensus, as well as decentralized government and rigid constitutions that can hardly be amended (Clarke and Foweraker 90).

French and German Political Systems

The main difficulty of dividing the democratic states into majoritarian and consensus ones consists in that none of them belongs to purely one type. According to Lijphart, “all existing democracies are mixtures of consensus and majoritarian institutions” (Lane and Ersson 5), which means that democratic countries occupy an interim position in the spectrum 1-10 with full majoritarian at 10, and full consensus 1. France and Germany are two examples of the opposing models of democracy with the former being a majoritarian democracy and the latter being a consensus one. However, none of these two is an extreme type of democracy. France, for instance, occupies a position between the sixth and the seventh in the spectrum 1-10 and Germany is somewhere between the second and the third positions.

French Political System

France’s type of democracy is not easy to define due to its containing the features of both the majoritarian and the consensus models in almost equal amounts. This is connected with the fact that up to the second part of the twentieth century France has been almost completely a consensus democracy marked by proportionality. With the establishment of the Fifth Republic, however, proportionalism was replaced by the majoritarian electoral system which is dominant in the country even at present. Its current electoral system is majoritarian due to two political parties being mostly the major ones (Union for a Popular Movement and Parti Républicain), its elections taking place according to plurality, and the cabinets being one-party.

Nevertheless, France has retained certain features of the consensus democracy. Thus, for instance, multiparty system prevails in the country. Though recently two political parties (UMP and PS) became more or less dominating, other parties were far from being minority for they received over 40 percent of the vote (Kesselman, Krieger, Joseph, Basu, and Abrahamian 136). This means that “the French party system exhibits strongly conflicting tendencies between polarization, in which competition pits the two major parties against each other, and fragmentation, involving competition among a large number of parties” (Kesselman et al. 136). Moreover, France has a written constitution, which is a feature of the consensus democracies. Finally, the president, not the governing ministers dominate the parliament with the presidency being elected directly. Therefore, France has three main features of a majoritarian democracy (one-party cabinet, elections according to plurality, and almost complete dominance of two parties) and three features of a consensus democracy (multiparty system, written constitution, and directly elected presidency). This is why this country cannot belong to only majoritarian or purely consensus democracy occupying an interim position between them.

German Political System

Germany is believed to use a consensus model of democracy, thought, just like in case with France, the country’s democracy is not absolutely consensual. Being somewhere at the middle between a consensus and majoritarian democracy has been always typical for Germany. Already in 1871 when the German Reich was established, the country formally remained a federation, though it still exhibited certain features of a monarchy. For instance, the representative of states which Germany back then consisted of worked in consensus (similarly to the modern European Union countries); at this, however, the Emperor exercised sovereign powers over the whole German Reich.

These days, the only evident feature of majoritarian democracy in Germany is the electoral dominance by the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the Christian Democratic Union. However, the peculiarity of the party system consists in the presence of coalition government which is formed by smaller political parties. Thus, among the consensus democracy features are Germany’s direct presidential elections, proportional representation, and coalition government. This allows placing Germany between the second and the third positions in the abovementioned spectrum.

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The majoritarian and the consensus models of democracy are the basic ones and they are absolutely opposite to each other. The majoritarian model of democracy can be characterized by the observance of the Rule of Law, dominance of two political parties, absence of the written Constitution, and decentralization of government, while the main features of the consensus democracy are corporate political decision-making, proportionalism, multiparty system, and coalition governments. France and Germany are the examples of these opposing types of democracy, though both the countries possess mixed features of majoritarian and consensus democracy.

Reference List

Caramani, D. (2008). Comparative politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clarke, P.A. & Foweraker, J. (2001). Encyclopedia of democratic thought. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Kesselman, M., Krieger, J., Joseph, W.A., Basu, A., & Abrahamian, E. (2008). Introduction to Comparative Politics. London: Cengage Learning.

Lane, J-E. & Ersson, S.O. (2003). Democracy: a comparative approach. London and New York: Routledge.

Murphy, J.F. (2004). The United States and the rule of law in international affairs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saward, M. (2003). Democracy. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Vetter, A. (2007). Local politics: a resource for democracy in Western Europe?: local autonomy, local integrative capacity, and citizens’ attitudes toward politics. Lexington: Lexington Books.

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