In 1899, Belgium became the first country in the world to adopt a proportional system for national elections. At that point, it had primarily been the preserve of theoretical debate, with only a handful of implementations at the sub-national level. So how did Belgium come around to the principle of proportionality and take a leap into, what was then, the dark?
Early Belgian elections
Popular elections had begun in Belgium shortly after it gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830. The new parliament was chosen by a two-round system, where a majority (50%+1) of votes was required to be elected in the first round, with a second round of voting between the strongest candidates otherwise. Unlike the system used in France today, most constituencies elected more than one MP, with a ‘bloc’ vote being in place that typically allowed one party to sweep the board in each constituency.
But, although Belgium’s liberal constitution guaranteed freedoms alien to much of Europe at the time, the electorate for the new parliament was typically restrictive – a tax-based means-testing meant only a tiny fraction of the adult population could vote.
Growing dissatisfaction with the system
It wasn’t long before dissatisfaction with Belgian elections began to appear. The means-tested franchise was increasingly objectionable, not least because it led to a bizarre situation where Liberal governments would try and exclude Catholic voters from paying tax, while Catholic governments would do vice versa.
Simultaneously, influenced by the growing movement in Britain, sympathy with proportional representation became common among Belgian intellectuals from the 1860s. One of these was lawyer and mathematician Victor D’Hondt who, in 1878, devised his method for fairly allocating seats to parties – the basis for Party List PR.
In 1881, the Reformist Association for the Adoption of Proportional Representation was formed to advocate for the introduction of D’Hondt’s method, with him being an active member. Although support for PR was undoubtedly stronger among Liberals – who were frustrated at the voting system becoming increasingly beneficial to the Catholics – the Association was non-partisan and, by the mid-1880s, could count on the membership of Catholic PM (and future Nobel Peace Prize winner) Auguste Beernaert and Emile Vandervelde, leader of the newly founded Labour Party.
Universal sufferage comes to Belgium
Despite Beernaert being in favour of PR, he was aware that many in his party weren’t and that he probably couldn’t yet get it through parliament. However, after the 1892 election, he did form a commission to look at proposals for electoral reform. But it was on the issue of suffrage where his hand was first forced.
Labour called an unprecedented general strike in April 1893, demanding universal male suffrage. A compromise was reached whereby all men over 25 would get the vote (increasing the electorate tenfold), but that there would be an element of plural voting, with certain taxpayers and those with a university education able to hold one or two extra votes.
With one electoral issue out of the way, Beernaert introduced a bill to adopt a version of proportional representation. Unfortunately, it failed to pass, and Beernaert resigned.
The Reformist Association campaigns for reform
Chart: 1894 Belgian Election Results
The first elections with universal male suffrage took place in autumn 1894 and had a significant impact on Belgian politics. Labour were able to enter parliament for the first time, becoming the second largest party; the Liberals ended up significantly underrepresented; while the Catholics retained their dominance.
Although parliament had rejected Beernaert’s proposals, public opinion had shifted – now all men had the vote, no man wanted their vote distorted. In response, the Reformist Association began a major publicity campaign. Beernaert and fellow pro-PR Catholics even started openly coordinating with pro-PR members of the Labour Party, the first time members from the two parties had ever been seen to cooperate.
Proportional representation comes to Belgian local elections
The first victory came in 1895, when a system of qualified PR was introduced for local elections – if no party won a majority of votes, seats were allocated proportionally. This introduction was hugely successful, with Mayor of Ghent Émile Braun saying:
“During the four years that proportional representation has been applied to the communal elections of Ghent, everyone has been able to appreciate the happy effects of the reform. Everybody recognises that, far from being endangered, the material prosperity of the city has increased, and that the ameliorating and pacifying effects of the altered electoral method have even exceeded the expectations and hopes of its advocates.”
A biased proposal for reform defeated
By 1899, public desire for reform was virtually unavoidable. In a devious ploy, new Catholic Prime Minister and opponent of PR Jules Vandenpeereboom proposed a hybrid system whereby constituencies of more than six MPs, coincidentally largely Liberal and Labour strongholds, would be elected by PR, while the remaining seats, which coincidentally returned Catholic MPs, would continue with the majority system.
These proposals were so outrageous and flagrantly biased that even many Catholic MPs refused to endorse them. Public anger erupted – protest marches took place and Labour even threatened a general strike. Vandenpeereboom and his proposals had to go.
Almost immediately after coming to office, Paul de Smet de Naeyer announced the introduction of a D’Hondt-based PR system for the whole country, with an average constituency electing 5 MPs. The proposals were endorsed by the Reformist Association and enjoyed cross-party support.
The proposals passed, becoming law on 29th December 1899. The first election to a national parliament using proportional representation took place five months later – allowing D’Hondt to see his system in action before his untimely death in 1901.
1900 Belgian Election Results
Proportional representation is a success
The introduction of proportional representation was viewed as a success across the spectrum – it had eliminated the highly distortive effect of the previous voting system and the fearmongered negative effects, such as an explosion in the number of parties, had not materialised.
There were still some concerns for electoral reform – Labour continued to oppose plural voting (abolished 1919), the Liberals wanted larger constituencies (a system of ‘apparentement’ was introduced in 1919) and, as in many Francophone countries, women were left waiting for the vote for quite a while (Some women won the right to vote in 1919, but women did not fully gain voting rights until 1948). But the underlying system of constituency-based Party List PR using the D’Hondt method has remained in place to this day.
The campaign for proportional representation in Belgium was successful because it transcended party boundaries, with pro-PR politicians in all main parties working together, some even prepared to break taboos in hunt of a fairer voting system. The Reformist Association achieved their goals by working tirelessly to communicate the benefits of the system to politicians and the public.
But ultimately it was unfair, distorted election results, the desire for a better democracy, and satisfaction with the performance of PR in local elections – that triggered Belgium to become the first country to introduce PR nationally.
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