The past decade has seen an explosion of creative institutional design in new democracies. From Indonesia to Iraq, scholars and policymakers interested in the management of ethnic conflict have engaged in overt “political engineering” with the aim of promoting stable democracies in deeply divided societies.
Among advocates, several contrasting approaches to political engineering for the management of social cleavages have been evident. One is the scholarly orthodoxy of consociationalism, which relies on elite cooperation between leaders of different communities, as in Switzerland. Under this model, specific democratic institutions—grand coalition cabinets, proportional representation elections, minority veto powers and communal autonomy—collectively maximize the independence and influence of the main ethnic communities in a given society.
Taken to an extreme, entire political systems can be structured around ethnic interests, thereby becoming examples of communalism, in which explicit ethnic criteria of representation—such as ethnically predetermined seat ratios or voter rolls—are used, as in Lebanon. Today, as I will discuss below, Iraq has adopted elements of this model too, with highly problematic results.