How did Denmark get proportional representation?

Author:
Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 1st March 2023

Denmark today is home to one of the most proportional voting systems in the world, but, for a long time, elections to the Danish Folketing took place using First Past the Post. So why and how did they make the shift to wholeheartedly embracing proportional representation?

Denmark’s early elections with First Past the Post

Popular elections were first instituted in Denmark in 1849 with the creation of the new Danish Rigsdag – a bicameral parliament comprised of a directly elected lower house, the Folketing, and an indirectly elected upper house, the Landsting. The Folketing was elected in single-member constituencies by First Past the Post with one of the most open franchises in the world at the time (around two-thirds of men, compared to about one in five men in the UK).

Andræ’s Method – an early version of the Single Transferable Vote

It was only six years later that Denmark became electoral pioneers. In an attempt to solve the illusive ‘Schleswig-Holstein question’, a special federal council – the Rigsråd – was formed, which would be partially elected by a system devised by politician and mathematician Carl Andræ. This system was designed to allow for fair representation of minorities and involved voters ranking preferences in multi-member constituencies – it was an early version of the Single Transferable Vote and the first use of proportional representation in a major public election.

The Rigsråd did not ultimately solve the question at hand, but, upon a revised constitution in 1866, Andræ’s method was transferred to the Landsting. Andræ keenly advocated for his system within Denmark, but he did not promote it internationally leading to STV being independently devised in the UK by Thomas Hare two years later.

A multi-party system develops in Denmark

By the 1870s, Denmark had developed a clear two-party system – with the liberal Venstre (literally ‘left’) representing agrarian interests and the conservative Højre (literally ‘right’) favouring landowners and urban voters. Venstre were the more popular party among voters and continuously had large majorities in the Folketing. However, Denmark was yet to become a fully constitutional monarchy and King Christian IX routinely favoured Højre to form governments.

From 1884, the Social Democrats became a third presence in parliament – quickly absorbing the support of the growing industrial working class. Venstre became divided on how to deal with being locked out of power, with the Moderate faction becoming a short-lived independent party. Then, shortly after Venstre were finally allowed to form a government in 1901, the left of the party split forming the Social Liberals.

First Past the Post struggled to deal with this growing multi-partyism, with the issues compounded by a constituency map that was heavily skewed towards rural areas. Things finally came to a head after the 1913 election – Højre were virtually wiped out and, for the second time, the Social Democrats won the most votes, but Venstre the most seats. It was clear something had to change.

1913 Danish Election Results

Party % Vote Seats
Social Democrats 29.6% 32
Venstre 28.6% 44
Højre 22.4% 7
Social Liberals 18.7% 31
Others 0.7% 0

Arguments on electoral reform

The problem was that there was little agreement on which way to go. Support for PR, which had been introduced for local elections in 1908, came from the Social Liberals and Højre. The larger parties supported retaining First Past the Post, but only in opposing circumstances – the Social Democrats (who were more interested in universal suffrage) if the map was redrawn, Venstre if it wasn’t (as it could lead to Social Democrat majorities, which they feared).

There was also the question of the Landsting. Despite being elected by STV, the structure of the constituencies and who could elect it led to it being dominated by Højre – to the chagrin of other parties. Venstre were happy for PR in the Landsting, but not the Folketing; while Højre were prepared to allow fairer elections to the Landsting, but only in exchange for PR in the Folketing.

The 1915 System

In 1915, a compromise was finally reached as part of a wider package of democratic reforms including universal adult suffrage and fairer elections to the Landsting. The new voting system saw Copenhagen elect all their MPs by List PR, while the rest of the country would elect their MPs in a two-tier Additional Member System, similar to those currently used to elect the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.

The system was put to the test in 1918 and successfully produced a far more proportional result.

1918 Danish Election Results

Party % Vote Seats
Venstre 29.4% 45
Social Democrats 28.7% 39
Social Liberals 20.7% 32
Conservatives 18.3% 22
Others 3.0% 2

An unhappy compromise?

But despite the new voting system achieving what it was designed for, not everybody was happy with it. Outside Copenhagen, the First Past the Post constituencies still skewed heavily towards Venstre and there weren’t enough PR seats for the Conservatives (Højre’s replacement) to overcome the fact they only won two First Past the Post seats.

Amid a constitutional crisis caused by the King dismissing the government, the Conservatives successfully spearheaded negotiations for a new voting system. Again, it had to meet the competing concerns of the different parties. The Conservatives and Social Liberals wanted a highly proportional system, while Venstre wished to maintain small constituencies. The Conservatives also wanted voters to be able to decide which candidates were elected, in contrast to the Social Democrats who favoured closed lists.

The 1920 System

The result was a two-tier fully PR system. 110 MPs were to be elected directly in 22 constituencies electing between three and seven members. A further 29 MPs were to be chosen nationally in a compensatory manner, to ensure that the overall results were as proportional as possible. It was to be up to the parties which way their seats were allocated to candidates, though any such allocation would take place in small sub-constituency ‘nomination districts’ – retaining, in some form, the spirit of single-member constituencies.

Much more satisfactory to all parties, the 1920 voting system has remained in place ever since, only subject to small changes such as the number and size of constituencies and the threshold for national seats. Its mixture of local constituencies and national proportionality have clearly been a good fit for Danish politics, with it even serving as a template for the current Norwegian and Swedish voting systems.

Conclusion

The introduction of PR to the Danish Folketing demonstrates the key advantages of the sheer flexibility of proportional systems. Rather than having to pick a rigid ‘off-the-shelf’ system, the Danes were able to develop a voting system that was both tailor-made for Denmark’s political culture and which met the concerns of all major political parties.

Though it took them a few years to get the balance right, Denmark were able to turn a political and electoral system that every party was in some way unsatisfied with into one that has had broad and enduring satisfaction ever since.

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