The Dutch elections were held almost three months ago, but it’s still unclear who will form the next government. This is normal in the Netherlands, where all governments are coalitions because no party ever wins a majority of the seats.
After the March 2017 elections, the new government wasn’t installed until October, a record-setting 225 days after the elections. That government included four parties; the new government now being negotiated is likely to include five or more.
With the single member plurality electoral system — known as “first past the post” — Canadians are used to quick results. On the rare occasions that no single party wins a majority of seats, the parties quickly determine if they can govern as a minority with support from other parties, as the current Liberal government is doing.
The first-past-the-post system, however, distorts the results. In the 2019 Canadian election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won 46 per cent of seats with only 33 per cent of the votes while the Conservatives won 36 per cent of seats with 34 per cent of the votes.
Despite winning more than twice as many votes as the Bloc Québecois, with nine per cent of seats at under eight per cent of the votes, the NDP won only seven per cent of seats, the Greens won only three seats despite winning almost seven per cent of the votes, and no other party won seats.
By contrast, elections in the Netherlands operate with pure proportional representation, with no threshold. To win one of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, a party needs only 1/150th of the votes — currently around 70,000.
Most countries using proportional representation have an electoral threshold, often five per cent, so parties winning less than that don’t win seats. Because so few votes are needed to win a seat in the Dutch parliament, 37 parties ran candidates and 17 parties elected representatives.
Had Canada used the Dutch system in 2019, the Conservatives would have had a few more seats than the Liberals (who would have had far fewer seats), the Bloc would have had fewer, the NDP and Greens would have had more, and even Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party would have won a few seats.
This splintered political landscape in the Netherlands is relatively new. As recently as 2012, the government could be formed with only two parties: Mark Rutte’s conservative Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie party, known as VVD (41 seats) in coalition with Labour (38 seats). In earlier years, the largest party often won 50 or more seats.
The fact that every vote counts means that participation in Dutch elections is high: 79 per cent voted in March, a slight dip from the 82 per cent who voted in the previous elections — but far above the 67 per cent of Canadian voters who turned out in 2019 and the 59 per cent who voted in 2008.
New ideas, emerging trends
Proportional representation also means that new ideas and societal trends quickly enter parliament. A Green party and an anti-immigration party both won seats as early as the 1980s, and the new Dutch parliament includes representatives of an animal rights party, several religious parties, a party for pensioners, a farmer’s party and three members of the pan-European party Volt.
With proportional representation combined with a divided society, one might expect chaos and instability. Yet the opposite is often true: Rutte has been in office since 2010 and is widely expected to continue as prime minister, despite parliament passing a motion of censure against him.
Because VVD won the most votes, the party won’t drop him as leader. And the other potential governing parties do not appear to have the appetite or the numbers to cobble together the complex coalition required to govern without the VVD.
Similarly, it took a coalition of eight parties in Israel to oust prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been prime minister since 2009. It’s common to see only incremental change rather than huge swings under proportional representation systems.
By contrast, in first-past-the-post systems, small changes in vote share can lead to large swings. In the 2004 federal election, for example, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives dropped from 38 per cent to 30 per cent of votes, but actually increased their seats, from 78 to 99. The Liberal vote share, meantime, dipped slightly from 41 per cent to 37 per cent but they fell dramatically, from 172 to 135 seats.
Elections under proportional representation tend to be less dramatic because the seats accurately reflect the vote share — though in the 2017 Dutch elections, Labour suffered a historic defeat.
It dropped from 25 per cent of the votes (38 seats) to under six per cent (nine seats), which they repeated this year.
Geert Wilders dropped from 20 seats to 17 while the upstart Forum for Democracy party grew from two in the 2017 elections to eight seats with five per cent of the vote — a far cry from the results of the 2019 provincial elections, where Forum rocketed to first place with almost 15 per of the votes.
Forum leader Thierry Baudet’s controversial statements and conspiracy theories dimmed his prospects.
But he won some votes by campaigning against COVID-19 lockdown measures, while also enabling a new right-wing party led by two former Forum members to win three seats.
Low geographic representation
Pure proportional representation does not ensure geographic representation. The Netherlands has a population of over 17 million people in an area smaller than Nova Scotia. Yet even in such a small country, there are regional differences, and the existing electoral rules do a poor job of translating those differences into seats.
For example, while every one of Canada’s 338 MPs represents a specific geographic constituency, the most recent Dutch elections resulted in only one representative each from two of its 11 provinces; most representatives come from the dominant Randstad.
This problem inspired one of the recommendations of the parliamentary commission on the state of democracy in the Netherlands — introducing a personal and regional component by assigning greater weight to preference votes. Dutch voters can vote for any candidate running for any party, but candidates now need one-quarter of the general threshold (approximately 17,500 votes) to jump ahead of their colleagues on the party list and win a seat.
The outgoing government supports the commission’s proposal, and if the new parliament agrees, it could be in place in time for the 2023 elections. By contrast, various proposals for proportional representation in Canada have so far failed to become law, despite considerable public support and a promise from Trudeau that the 2015 elections would be the last held under the first-past-the-post system.
Willem Maas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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