A guest blog by Dylan Difford. Dylan is a researcher specialising in elections and voting systems, as well as formerly a regular contributor to the Electoral Reform Society blog.

The Netherlands is currently home to what is often regarded as the most proportional voting system in the world – with seats awarded to parties in a single nationwide constituency. But despite having been a key part of the Dutch political system since 1917, it hasn’t always been popular. The fact that dozens of small parties are able to win seats has been blamed for increasingly lengthy and difficult coalition formations. There might be little appetite to abandon PR outright, but there’s growing demand for next Wednesday’s general election to be the last to use this unusual version of it.

The System

Whereas most countries that use PR have some form of constituency system (often based on the equivalents to counties), the Dutch version of Party List PR avoids this. Instead, all 150 seats of the House of Representatives are proportionally awarded to parties in a single nationwide allocation, the only qualification being a party has to win more than 0.67% of the vote. A few other countries (including Israel and Slovakia) also use a nationwide version of List PR, but all have higher thresholds – making the Dutch variant the closest to ‘pure’ PR. 

Why Pure PR?

This choice to opt for proportionality above all else stems from the religious and class divisions in Dutch society at the start of the 20th century. The Netherlands was divided into protestant, catholic, secular middle class (liberal) and secular working class (socialist) ‘pillars’ – each with their own institutions, including hospitals, schools and newspapers. Naturally, this extended to politics. But the multi-party system this created was heavily distorted by the majority voting system then in use – in the 1913 election, three parties won more seats than the party that won the most votes.

When discussions quickly turned to electoral reform, none of the ‘pillar’ parties wanted any of the others to have an unfair advantage of any kind – thus leading them towards as proportional a system as possible. A constituency system, as used in other countries that had adopted PR at the time, would benefit those parties which had regional concentrations of support, such as the catholics (based largely in the south of the country) and was therefore out of the question. From the 1918 election, national List PR was in place.

Previous Reform Attempts

The introduction of ‘pure’ PR did not immediately shake up the Dutch party system. However, by the 1960s, the weakening influence of the traditional ‘pillars’ had led to new parties springing up, easily able to win seats due to the openness of the Dutch system. This created support for reform from two directions: the established ‘pillar’ parties wanted to weaken the influence of the ‘irresponsible’ new parties, while concerns over the gap between citizens and the government drove support for some of these upstart parties, most notably the liberal D66. Nonetheless, the thought of abandoning proportionality outright, which had established itself across Dutch society, was rare.

A 1969 report by a cross-party committee on the constitution recommended the introduction of a constituency PR system, though divisions in the governing coalition meant they lacked government backing. The opposition then included the proposals in a private members’ bill, which would likely have passed had the unpopular idea of a directly-elected prime minister (an obsession of D66) not also been included in it. A similar bill was put forward again in 1974, only to be defeated for the same reasons.

Electoral reform debates lay dormant for years, but growing concerns over the lack of geographic representation put it back on the agenda in the early-2000s. Many now favoured a ‘German-style’ mixed-member system, in the hope it would combine local representation and proportionality. The Christian democratic-Liberal coalition that took office in 2003 put forward a version of such a system (albeit one that actually differed quite a bit from the German system), but once the minister responsible had resigned due to other reforms being blocked, the proposals ended up being shelved.

Current Push for Reform

The latest push for reform is coming from the centrist New Social Contract, who were only formed in August, but polls have consistently shown are likely to be one of the largest parties after the election. Constitutional reform is a key priority of theirs, including advocating for a ‘Swedish-style’ PR system. This would see most seats allocated at the province level in constituencies of between 4 and 15 members, with 25 seats then awarded nationally to ensure overall proportional representation. It is unclear whether this would use a threshold (as in Sweden), but the central thrust of the new system is to build a closer link between MPs and regions, rather than to substantively diminish the proportionality of the results.

Whether this will be the reform that succeeds remains to be seen, but the NSC have a good chance of being included in the next cabinet, making it a real possibility that next week’s vote could be the last under the Netherlands’ rather unique PR system.