Why did the Netherlands adopt nationwide proportional representation?

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 April 2023

The Dutch prioritised proportionality above all else when creating their system of proportional representation; choosing a single nationwide constituency and a very low threshold. This is different to most countries which try to balance local representation, proportionality and enabling a pluralistic yet stable party system. So, why did they make the decision to go for such a radical and unusual voting system?

Early Dutch experiments with democracy

The wave of revolutions that spread across Europe in 1848 pushed King William II to move towards a constitutional monarchy with a directly elected parliament. These elections took place using the majority-based Two-Round Vote in mainly two-member constituencies, with half of MPs elected at every other election.   The franchise was initially restricted based on how much tax somebody paid, these restrictions were gradually eased in 1887 and again in 1896, with elections also becoming whole house elections in exclusively single-member constituencies by the end of the century.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands

The expansion of the franchise coincided with a wider trend in Dutch society – ‘pillarisation’. At this time, the Netherlands was heavily split along religious, class and ideological grounds. Beginning with the Protestants, each group began to create its own set of institutions for themselves – including schools, universities, trade unions, shops, newspapers and even hospitals.    By the early 20th century, there were four major pillars – Protestant, Catholic, secular working class (Socialist) and secular middle class (Liberal), though members of the latter tended to oppose pillarisation and the Protestant pillar was arguably split into sub-pillars. Although divides were not absolute, this did in effect amount to a self-imposed segregation of Dutch society.  Naturally, the process of pillarisation also extended to the political sphere, with each pillar having at least one party to represent itself and protect its institutions.

The 1913 Dutch general election

The pillarised party system didn’t mix well with the majoritarian voting system. This was perhaps most clear with the 1913 general election where the Protestant Anti-Revolutionary Party won the most votes (21.5%) but had the 4th largest seat share (11%).  Meanwhile, the Catholic General League took a quarter of seats (25) on under 14.5% of the vote and had the largest seat share.

Results of the 1913 Dutch election 

Party Pillar % Vote Seats
ARP Protestant (mainstream) 21.5% 11
SDAP Socialist 18.5% 15
LU Liberal (mainstream) 16.7% 22
ABK Catholic 14.5% 25
CHU Protestant (hardline) 10.5% 10
BVL Liberal (right) 7.3% 10
VDB Liberal (left) 6.6% 7
Others 4.4%

A major reason for these skewed results was that the system of constituencies was beneficial to the pillars whose support was most geographically concentrated – particularly the Catholics, who were dominant in the southern provinces of North Brabant and Limburg.

The Great Pacification of 1917

The 1913 election represented a breaking point. The new Liberal government formed special committees to deal with the major religious and democratic questions in Dutch politics and by 1917 compromises had been reached. Catholics and Protestants were allocated state funding for their schools and the Socialists gained support for universal male suffrage.   Alongside these compromises, there was agreement to change the voting system to a proportional system. PR faced opposition from the Liberals, as they knew that universal suffrage and a majority system would likely lead to them being wiped out, but faced little opposition from other pillars.   Although women were unable to vote at this time (the franchise was extended in 1919), they were able to be elected, leading to the peculiar circumstance of Social Democrat Suze Groeneweg elected as an MP whilst not being allowed to vote in elections.

Why did the Netherlands adopt National List PR?

Of the countries that had adopted PR at that time, most had opted for small constituencies electing a small number of MPs, these countries had shown that small constituencies were able provide a reasonable degree of proportionality. However, the Dutch had a negative experience of such constituencies due to pillarisation and concentrated support favouring certain parties. Each pillar didn’t want to see any other pillar gain an unfair advantage; therefore the only solution was a system that was as proportional as possible, ensuring each pillar was accurately represented. To achieve this, the Dutch chose a version of PR with a single 100-member nationwide constituency.   There have been periodic calls to reform the system and introduce some form of constituency representation – either through a constituency List PR or mixed-member system, since the collapse of the pillars in the 1960s and 70s. However, the fundamentals of the national List PR system have remained in place to this day.

Read more posts...