Sunday, 19 March 2017

Did the lack of an election threshold save The Netherlands?

The Netherlands. Also known as flat Switzerland and as the inventors of the stock market crash. A country you think of so little that we were surprised by the international attention for the Dutch election last week. Although The Netherlands is the 17th economy in the world we are used to being ignored,* typically not making any trouble.

But this time the three part question was whether after Brexit and Trump also The Netherlands, France and Germany would destroy their societies in response to radical fundamentalist grandpas campaigning against radical fundamentalist Muslims. The answer for the Dutch part is: no.

To be honest, this was clear before the election. The Netherlands has a representative democracy. The government is elected by the parliament. The seats in parliament depend closely on the percentage of votes a party gets. This is a very stable system and even when Trump was inaugurated, the anti-Muslim party PVV polled at 20%, no way near enough to govern. The PVV survey results plotted below are in seats, 20% is 30 seats. Every line is one poling organization.

Due to the Syrian refugee crisis the PVV jumped up in September 2015. They went down during the primaries as the Dutch people got to know Trump and the refugees turned out to be humans in need of our help. After getting elected, Trump favorability went up; Americans gave Trump the benefit of the doubt. The same happened to the PVV; if America elects Trump, he cannot be that bad? Right? Right? While Trump was trampling America as president and filled his cabinet with shady corrupt characters, the PVV dropped from 20% to 13% (20 seats).

There is no guarantee the drop of the PVV was due to Trump, but the temporal pattern fits and the leader of the PVV, Geert Wilders, is a declared fan of Trump. People campaigning against the PVV made sure to tie Wilders to Trump. For example in this AVAAZ advertisement below. I hope AVAAZ will also make such videos for France and Germany.

I would certainly not have minded the election being a few months later to give Trump the possibility to demonstrate his governing skills more clearly. This will also help France and Germany. In addition Germans know their history very well and know that German fascism ended with holocaust it did not start with it. It started with hatred and discrimination. The most dangerous case is France with its winner-takes-all presidential system.

Fascism: I sometimes fear... (by Michael Rosen)

I sometimes fear that
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress
worn by grotesques and monsters
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis.

Fascism arrives as your friend.
It will restore your honour,
make you feel proud,
protect your house,
give you a job,
clean up the neighbourhood,
remind you of how great you once were,
clear out the venal and the corrupt,
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying,
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

I expect that it also hurted the PVV that Wilders did not show up for most of the debates. Without the solution-free animosity of Wilder it was possible to have an adult debate about solutions to the problems in The Netherlands. Refreshing and interesting. The last days he did show up, the level immediately dropped, making clear what the main Dutch political problem is. Wilders.

As the graph below shows the Dutch parliament will have 13 parties. This has triggered a debate whether we need an election threshold. 

A poll made around the election shows that a majority of 68% would be in favor of an election threshold of at least 2 seats (1.3%) and 28% even favor a threshold of 5 seats (3.3%). As the map below shows such a threshold would fortunately still be on the low side internationally.

   ≥1%, <2%
   ≥2%, <3%
   ≥3%, <4%
   ≥4%, <5%
   ≥5%, <6%
   ≥6%, <7%
   Each chamber has a different threshold.

I think a threshold, even a low one, is a bad idea. The short-term gains are small, the short-term problems are big and we risk a long-term decline of the Dutch political culture, which is already at a low due to Wilders. The arguments are not specific for The Netherlands. I hope these thresholds go down everywhere they exist.

The main argument in favor is that small parties make it harder to form a coalition government. This is true, small parties need visible influence to make governing worthwhile and survive the next election, which means they get an over-proportional piece of the pie. This makes other coalition partners worse of, which makes negotiations harder.

However, next to the small parties, which are hard to include in a government, we also have the PVV, which is hard to include because of their ideology and lack of workable ideas. The small parties in this election (PvdD, 50+, SGP, DENK, FvD) have 17 seats combined, while PVV has 20 seats. Getting rid of the small parties would thus reduce the problem by less than half. Not having large toxic parties in parliament would be at least as important.

Also without small parties we now need four parties to build a government. The election threshold would need to be very high to reduce that to three parties. So the benefits are small.

If the threshold were that high, an immediate problems would be that people voting for small parties are not represented in parliament and also less in the media. This is unfair.

This can have severe consequences. In Turkey the election threshold is 10% and in 2002 they had a case where 7 sitting parties were below this threshold and a whooping 46% of all votes were without representation in the parliament. That is a big price to pay for making it somewhat easier to build a government.

An election threshold also stimulates strategic voting, where people do not vote the party they agree with, but a party that will get into parliament or government. In the last Dutch election election a quarter of the voters voted strategically. The right wing VVD and the social democrat PvdA were competing for the number one spot. In the end they made a coalition government, which was thus not supported by the population, was highly unpopular and lost heavily this election. That is not a dynamic you want to enforce.

Strategic voting can also mean that a new party that does have sufficient support to pass the threshold does not get votes because many do not trust they will make it and many keep on voting for an existing party they like less.

Last week's Dutch election had a turnout of 80%. Having more parties means that people can find a better match to their ideas. A faithful ideologue may just need two parties, his own and the one of the enemy. If you just think of the left-right axis, you may be tempted to think you only need two or maybe four parties to cover all ideas. Whatever "left" and "right" means. It feels real, but has those funny names because it is so hard to define.

Political scientists often add a second axis: conservative to progressive. The graph below puts the Dutch parties on both axis. Left to right on the horizontal axis and progressive at the top and conservative at the bottom. The parties that care most about the environment and poor people (GroenLinks, SP, Christen Unie, D66) are still all over the map. The vertical axis also shows how materialistic the parties are, with parties that care about the distribution of money and power in the middle and parties that find immaterial values important at the top and the bottom. In other words: we need multiple parties to span the range of political thought and have parties that fit well enough to get out and vote.

Having a choice also means that it pays to pay attention to what happens in politics. American pundits like to complain that Americans are badly informed about politics and the world, but why would the voter pay attention? The US set up an electoral system where the voter has nearly no choice. The US has two parties that are way-out-there for most people.

Because of the districts a vote nearly never matters, especially after [[Gerrymandering]]. There are just a few swing districts and swing states where a vote matters. That is really bad for democracy. Changing the system is more helpful than blaming the voters.

Let me translate the party names for the foreigners. GroenLinks is a left-wing green party. D66 an individual freedom loving (liberal) party with a focus on democratic renewal. PvdA is traditionally a social democratic party, but has lost its moorings. SP is a social democratic party like the PvdA was two decades ago. GroenLinks and SP typically vote with each other, but GroenLinks are the educated people and SP the working class. (It is sad that does not mix.)

VVD used to be a pro-business individual liberty party, but has become more conservative and brown. CDA a center-right Christian democratic party. Christen Unie is an actually Christian party that tries to follow the teachings of Christ and cares about the environment and the (global) poor. SGP is a quite fundamentalist Christian party that likes the Old Testament more. PVV is the anti-Muslim authoritarian party. For the Americans: Most of the policies of Bernie Sanders are Christian democratic (although they would use different words to justify them).

That politics is much more than one axis can also be seen in a transition matrix. The one below shows how voters (or non-voters) in 2003 voted in 2006. A reading example is that people who voted CDA in 2003, voted CDA in 2006 in 71% of the cases and voted PvdA in 3% of the cases. There are many transition that do not follow the left-right axis or the conservative-progressive axis. People are complicated and have a range of interests.

2003 CDA PvdA VVD SP GroenLinks D66 Christen Unie PVV Other Non voters
CDA 71 3 6 6 0 0 4 2 1 6
PvdA 3 59 2 20 3 1 1 1 1 9
VVD 23 3 55 3 0 1 1 5 2 7
SP 4 11 0 70 6 0 2 4 2 2
GroenLinks 3 7 1 25 46 1 4 0 2 9
D66 8 17 17 15 12 23 2 0 5 0
Christen Unie 2 2 0 2 0 0 91 2 0 0
LPF 7 4 18 14 0 1 0 36 5 15
Other 10 2 2 10 2 0 7 2 57 7
Non voters 6 6 3 9 0 0 0 5 1 70

The main problem is on the long-term. An election threshold limits competition between parties. A threshold makes it harder to split up a party or to start a new one. That is nice for the people in power, but not good for the democracy within the party and for the voters. Parties become more vehicles of power and less places to discus problems and ideas.

With a high threshold the party establishment can kick people or small groups out without having to fear much consequences. A wing of a party can take over power; neutralize others with near impunity. When a party does not function well, becomes corrupt, starts to hold strange positions or sticks to outdated ideas, voters cannot easily go to an alternative. In the map with thresholds above you can see that high thresholds are typical for unpleasant not too democratic countries.

You see it in the USA where the corporate Democrats thought they could completely ignore the progressives because they would be forced to vote for them lacking a real alternative and in the face of grave danger to the Republic. Politics in Germany is much more about power (with a 5% threshold) than in The Netherlands, where politicians make compromises and try to get many people on board. There is no way to prove this but I think the election threshold is important for this.

That is why countries with low thresholds have parties with new ideas such as environmentalism or the hatred of Muslims or old fashioned niche ideas like general racism. In the latter cases you may like that these ideas are not represented in parliament, but the danger is that it suddenly blows up and Trump becomes president. Then it is much better to have Wilders in parliament making a fool of himself, making public that many of his politicians have lurid and criminal pasts, and demonstrating that he cannot convert his hatred into working policies and legislation. It also gives the decent parties the possibility to respond in time to the real problems the voters of such parties have, which they project on minorities.

The lack of competition also promotes corruption. It makes corruption less dangerous. In the extreme American case of two parties a lobbyist only has to convince party D that he can also bribe party R and both party can vote for a bill that transfers power to corporations on a Friday evening without any possibility of voters to intervene. In the extreme case the corruption becomes legalized and the politicians mostly respond to the wishes of the donor class and ignore everyday citizens. The disillusionment with democracy this creates makes it possible for anti-democratic politicians like Trump or Wilders to go beyond their small racist niche.

So my clear advice is: Netherlands, do not introduce an election threshold. America, get rid of your district system or at least introduce more competition with a [[ranked voting system]].

Related reading

In Dutch: Which effects would an election threshold have had on the 2012 election? Welke effecten zou een kiesdrempel hebben?

To my surprise The Netherlands already has a small election threshold, you need votes for at least one seat and otherwise there is no rounding up. See Wikipedia in Dutch on election thresholds: Kiesdrempel

In Dutch: How good were the polls? Hoe dicht zaten de peilingen bij de uitslag?

* Also Angela Merkel has visited The Netherlands only 6 times in her 12 years of rule.


  1. Nice post, lots of interesting ideas.

    I think that the large number of very small parties has an additional problem besides the difficulty of forming a majority government. Voting itself becomes tricky when there are 28 parties on the ballot, as was the case in the most recent Dutch election. Since there is a de facto threshold as you rightly point out (a party has to receive at least the number of votes that corresponds to one seat to actually get a seat in parliament), quite a few parties didn't make it into parliament.

    To avoid having dozens of parties participating in the elections, making the demands stricter for participating in the elections is arguably a better and fairer option than increasing the election threshold. A large threshold would mean that too many voters are not represented in parliament, which should be avoided. That said, increasing such a threshold from (the current) 1 to 2 seats doesn't strike me as hugely problematic.

    I totally agree that a "winner takes all" system and a district voting system are terrible choices from a democratic point of view.


  2. A threshold of two seats is not hugely problematic, but also not hugely helpful. Looking at the pros and cons, I would say that smaller is better. I would even remove the small one seat threshold we have now. But other informal thresholds are likely more important. Name recognition, having a national presence.

    I do not know what the rules are for getting on the ballot. They should indeed be stringent enough to make sure that there is some chance of getting into parliament. However, they should also not be so hard that a party would have to invest a large part of its resources into this, rather than on campaigning. It should also not make it easier for parties with rich donors behind them to get on the ballot, the rules should show real support.

    In these times were the traditional left-right axis no longer explains much variance, it makes sense that more parties have some hope of making it. We are in a transition period. I hope in the transition away from corporate stress, neo-liberalism and the economisation of life, which makes fascism look more attractive, to valuing a well-lived life in all its wonders and complexity.

  3. "I totally agree that a "winner takes all" system and a district voting system are terrible choices from a democratic point of view."
    I disagree. Parliaments are a device to achieve a compromise. You have an electorate with varied and enigmatic views, and need to produce yes/no decisions, which would be no individual's choice. Victor's fine-grained system puts all the burden of compromise at the parliament level, and that may be too much burden. Too much talking, and still may not well represent.

    The US/British system puts a lot of the compromise at the pre-election stage. Parties work out compromise packages in the hope of getting a majority. You have to vote for something not ideal, but with a more realistic knowledge of what will actually be done. And, importantly, you can hold the governing party responsible for the outcome.

    But as Victor says, it does require strategic voting, and is rigid in terms of party evolution. In Australia we have a mixture, with districts at the House level, and more like proportional representation in the Senate. Even with a fairly high barrier, it is the Senate that is our current problem. The important alleviation of the district system is ranked (called preferential) voting. It means you can express your ideal, and also (without penalty) your preferred compromise. No need for strategic. And although the main parties have retained dominance, the minor parties still have influence, through guidance given to supporters on ranking, which is influential.

    So I'm wondering if the answer to Victor's issue is a higher barrier with ranked voting, so the minor parties' supporters still get a say in the eventual compromise, but less has to be haggled in parliament?

  4. Some economist made the effort of formally proving that no electoral system is optimal.

    It is more than just the moment the compromise is made. The main problem is a lack of competition between the parties and a lack of choice for the voter. A ranked voting system is certainly progress, but can only alleviate these problems of the district system a little.

    If you got real parties, like in Australia or UK, the compromise is made in advance. If every candidate runs for himself with funding from his own donors, like in America, the compromise is still made after the election in their district system. In the US, the party platform is just a piece of paper.

    France has a district system with two rounds of voting, but still has several (small) parties. Would be interested in studying how they got that working.

    It made sense to start with a district system. The local warlords would advice king dictator, later "advice" him, and this system gradually became more democratic. Once you start from scratch, after a war or revolution, it makes sense to switch to a better representative system.

  5. Victor, with all due respect, I can't but comment a bit off-topic here:

    But this time the three part question was whether after Brexit and Trump also The Netherlands, France and Germany would destroy their societies in response to radical fundamentalist grandpas campaigning against radical fundamentalist Muslims. The answer for the Dutch part is: no.

    This is like everybody feels comfy again after Trump manages to form two grammatically correct sentences in a row. A lot of people seem to suffer from acquired tolerance.

    1.4 million Dutch (13.1%, 2nd rank) voted for the proto-fascist hate-filled horror clown. Rutte, during the election campaign, felt the need and had the flexibility of spine to French kiss the racist Dutchmen's recta.

    Election threshold is not the problem here.

  6. Yes, it is sad, but a lot better than Brexit or Trump or Le Pen as French president. In the happy time of my youth we only had one universally despised racist in parliament. Those were the good times.

    I do have some hope that the Trump presidency will continue to pull the racists down.


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