The Problem of Power Sharing

Expressing trust and respect

Dragoljub Popović on the classification of power sharing among the different forms of government.

It remains doubtful whether power sharing can be considered a system or form of government. If one is to consult Collins English Dictionary, it is ‘a political arrangement in which opposing groups in a society participate in government’. Wikipedia will add to this, within the entry of consotionalism, which equals the substance of the power sharing, that the tasks of such an arrangement are ‘the survival of democracy and avoidance of violence’. One of the most recent academic contributions to the discussion on the subject insists on the ethnic character of the phenomenon mentioning ‘formal power sharing institutions’.[1]

On the other hand traditional forms or systems of government are usually defined as such. Turning to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for instance, we find exactly the form of government as genus proximum in the definitions of both parliamentary and presidential governments. Wikipedia follows the pattern in case of directorial government in its entry on directorial system: ‘The sole country using this form of government is Switzerland’.

The conclusion is simple: there is a sort of reluctance to range the phenomenon of power sharing among the forms or systems of government, along with the traditional ones. The question therefore must arise: What exactly is power sharing? The author of this text ventured in his book on Comparative Government to provide an answer, dealing with the issue and putting the pattern of power sharing at the same footing with all other forms or systems of government existing in the world, namely parliamentary, presidential, semi-presidential and directorial. The author presented in his volume the constitutional systems of North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as examples of the power sharing form of government.[2] Power sharing has indeed its own specific features, for which that system deserves to be treated in the same way as all other forms of government. It is paramount that the power sharing provides an adequate environment for the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Some of the most important features developed in political theory are present in the constitutional systems of both countries mentioned, e.g. grand coalition, mutual veto and proportionality (cf. Lijphart 1977).

The general reproach to the classification of power sharing among the forms of government claims first, that it lacks principles, and second, that it has an appearance of a provisional settlement. The author rejects both for the sake of various reasons.

The first objection insists on the fact that settlements created in a haste lack principles. It is true that most of the power sharing settlements are products of constitutional engineering and a direct influence of the international community on certain societies. Such interventions, although inspired by noble intentions, may appear clumsy and to some extent inadequate. However, no matter how inappropriate some of the international mediating efforts may be, or what amount of dissatisfaction they provoked with some of the political actors, there is a general framework to which those efforts remain faithful. That framework is clear – it is democracy, based on free and fair elections and the rule of law. These are indeed the principles that power sharing as a form of government is firmly based on.

As to the second reproach, even if it were true that a certain settlement is provisional, that does not necessarily mean it is not going to last. A parallel can be drawn in this respect to the French Constitution of 1958. It also had a provisional appearance, and many believed it could not survive the strong politician it had been tailored for. However, it is still the Constitution of France, and it managed to overcome the inherent problems it was born with. The two examples of power sharing settlements discussed in the volume are from the Western Balkans. They both managed to put an end to hostilities in civil wars and last to date. Political complications intervening with the functioning of such systems do not originate in the institutional designs of those, but rather find their cause in different factors preceding the introduction of the power sharing. The problems are socially and politically determined and the power sharing arrangements were introduced exactly for the purpose of soothing tensions existing in the society and in order to overcome the troubles provoked by a whole network of fears, prejudices, mentality inspired behaviour, sticking to extremes and the like.

Therefore if we return to the concept at the level of definition it should be added to the definitions we find in dictionaries that power sharing is a constitutionally entrenched political settlement, which by its own features represents a specific form of government. Its characteristic features qualify that system of government to find its place among liberal democracies.

[1] N.C. Bormann, L.E.Cederman, S.Gates, B.A.T.Graham, S.Hug, K.W. Storm, J.Wucherpfennig, Power Sharing: Institutions, Behaviour and Peace, Am.Jour.Pol.Sci. 63(1): 84-100 (2019)

[2] D.Popović, Comparative Government, Edward Elgar 2019


Popovic jacket blog

Dragoljub Popović is Attorney-at-Law and Ordinary Professor of Law, School of Law, Union University, Belgrade, Serbia and former Judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

The book Comparative Government is out now.

Read the Introduction and Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline.

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