Proportional representation is the most popular form of democracy for countries in the world today. Proportional Representation isn’t one electoral system though, it’s the simple idea that the strength of each faction in parliament should closely match their popularity in the country. For many people, that is what living in a democracy means.
Each country will have a slightly different way to reach this goal, but there are a few broad families of electoral systems.
There are over 100 countries which use either a Proportional Representation or a mixed system to elect their primary chamber across the world. Less than 50 use the First Past The Post system, a minority of countries globally, one of which is the United Kingdom.
Those who still use First Past the Post tend to have it as a result of being former British colonies.
|Type of system
||Countries in which it is used
||74 – Albania, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, North Macedonia, Netherlands, Nicaragua, Norway, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Sweden, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Togo, Tunisia, Türkiye and Uruguay.
|Single Transferable Vote (STV)
||2 – Ireland and Malta.
|Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
||7 – Germany, Hungary, Mexico, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Tajikistan, Thailand.
||19 – Andorra, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Georgia, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Mauritania, Niger, North Macedonia, Panama, Philippines, Russian Federation, Senegal, Seychelles, Ukraine and Venezuela.
||9 – Bolivia, Djibouti, Guyana, Lesotho, Libya, Madagascar, Nepal, Republic of Moldova and Sudan.
Note: Every country uses a slightly different implementation of their electoral system. Some countries could be argued to fit into multiple categories. With that in mind, the exact number for each system is contested.
This table is an updated version of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parline Database, https://data.ipu.org/. The following updates were made: Vanuatu from PR to SNTV; Dominica from PR to FPTP; Djibouti moved from MMP to other, Kyrgyzstan from PR to parallel. Kosovo, Tunisia and North Macedonia added to PR.
The top 10 ranked countries on the Human Freedom Index 2022, an index which measures 83 indicators of personal and economic freedom, are countries which use a form of PR for their elections (Switzerland, New Zealand, Estonia, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Netherlands and Luxembourg).
Similarly, 8 of the top 10 ranked countries classed as ‘full democracies’ on the Democracy Index 2020, which is based on five categories “electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties”, use PR (Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands). The United Kingdom sits halfway down the rankings of full democracies, coming 16th out of 23 countries classed as full democracies.
What are the main proportional representation systems?
Party List Proportional Representation is the most popular
Party List proportional representation is the most widely used form of PR globally – 73 countries use it to elect their MPs.
In Party List systems, constituencies are bigger than under First Past the Post and voters elect a group of MPs. These constituencies could be a town, county, or whole country.
Open and closed list systems
Party List systems differ in the extent to which citizens can choose which individuals get elected.
In a ‘closed’ list system, an ordered list of candidates is published by each party. Voters mark their support for the party on the ballot, rather than an individual candidate. Once the election results have been announced, the party fills the seats they have won from their list of candidates in that constituency.
Alternatively, in ‘open’ list systems, each party draws up a list of candidates and voters can vote for an individual candidate from this list (in some countries – voters can choose to simply vote for a party rather than choosing a specific candidate).
Single Transferable Vote gives power to voters
Ireland and Malta use the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a form of proportional representation invented in Britain and the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.
STV gives voters maximum choice on who to vote for. Voters put numbers by the candidates on their ballot paper with the number 1 as their favourite, they can rank all candidates or just vote for their favourite candidate.
To get elected, a candidate needs to reach a set number of votes based on the number of seats available in the constituency and the number of votes cast.
If your favourite candidate has more votes than they need to gain a seat or has no chance of winning then your vote is transferred to your next choice, rather than making no difference on the outcome as it would with First Past the Post.
Under STV, voters can choose between candidates from the same or different parties, which incentivises parties to stand candidates who reflect the diversity of the party and the constituency. Independent candidates are no longer seen as a ‘wasted’ vote, ensuring every voter can have their vote heard and counted.
Mixed Member Proportional Representation keeps a single local MP
Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) is also known as the Additional Member System (AMS) in the UK. MMP is a mix of Westminster’s First Past the Post system and Party List PR – the goal is to provide a proportional parliament but also keep a single local MP. Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly use this system.
Voters have two ballot papers. On the first is a list of candidates who want to be the local MP. Voters choose one candidate form this list, the candidate with the most votes wins and gets a seat, even if most people didn’t vote for them.
On the second ballot paper is a list of parties, each party will have published a list of candidates prior to the election. Each voter can choose one party on the ballot paper, a vote for a party is a vote to support any candidate they have selected to be on their list.
From this second ballot paper, seats are allocated in proportion to the votes a party received, taking into account how many ‘first vote’ seats they obtained, then ‘topping-up’ the seats in the legislature to make the legislature closely match the votes cast on the second ballot.
Parallel Voting is only semi-proportional
Parallel Voting is often conflated with AMS/MMP as it is (most commonly) a mix of FPTP and PR. However, while in AMS/MMP the Party List element acts as a ‘top-up’ to cancel out the disproportionate results of the First Past the Post seats, in Parallel Voting the two ballot papers (FPTP and PR) are separate. The PR seats are simply added to the First Past the Post seats.
Each electoral system balances the competing requirements of how proportional they are (whether seats in parliament reflect votes cast), the connection between MPs and their communities and the extent to which voters can choose between different candidates.
While no system is perfect, the Electoral Reform Society has long championed the Single Transferable Vote as the best balance of these requirements for the UK.
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