European electoral systems compared

Britain’s role in Europe is triggering new debates about the way the British political system relates to the European context. In a seminar in Oxford in February, organised by the Constitution Unit, a group of scholars – including a Finnish expert -- tackled the question of so-called list electoral systems. The background to the seminar was the fact that from June 1999, elections to the European Parliament in Britain will switch from first past the post to a system of regional lists.

The Finnish expert, Professor Risto Sänkiaho from the University of Tampere, told Eagle Street that the British participants had good knowledge of the continental European electoral systems, the least familiar being the Finnish system. Sänkiaho explained to the participants some of the pitfalls of the Finnish open list (d’Hondt) system which is based on individual candidacy. In an American way, it requires a lot of money. It also easily strengthens populist tendencies as the parties have difficulty in drawing clear-cut profiles of themselves. There is also a certain volatility as MPs can change parties. According to Sänkiaho, the British participants found strange the idea of inter-party competition for votes.

The greatest advantage of the system is that the candidates are known to their voters. As a matter of fact, Finnish voters have recently started to vote according to the candidate’s individual profile rather than his or her party affiliation.


The seminar identified three variants of list systems in operation across the EU:

closed: involving a single vote for a party only (e.g. France, Germany)

flexible: involving a single vote, either for a candidate or a party, with party and preference votes being used to determine which candidates are elected (e.g. Belgium, Netherlands)

open: involving a single vote, either for a candidate or a party, with preference votes only being used to determine which candidates are elected (e.g. Denmark, Finland)

A number of reasons were put forward in favour of/against electors being able to vote for a particular candidate from within a party list:

Closed lists avoid the personalised campaigns by candidates within a party list that might occur with open lists. Some seminar participants questioned the likelihood of intra-party splits occurring under open lists. In other EU countries operating open lists, intra-party conflict was not the case; at most, candidates highlighted their own views and qualities, without attacking other party candidates.

Closed lists also avoid successful candidates having to spend too much time campaigning in their constituencies between elections to ensure they are adopted as candidates for the next election. The seminar heard that this phenomenon occurs, among others, in the Netherlands, where MEPs spend much of their time in their constituencies and thus have a low attendance rate at the European Parliament

Open lists offer a ‘safety valve’ for voters, in cases where a particularly unpopular candidate is given a high list position by his/her party, or where a popular candidate is given a low ranking. In elections where there is a particularly sensitive single issue that cuts across the parties, open lists allow voters to select specific candidates according to their views on the issue in question. This is particularly relevant to the European Parliament elections, where support for, or hostility to, a Single European Currency is primarily reflected within the parties, rather than between them.

The Constitution Unit is a specialist think tank working on the implementation of constitutional reform. It is independent and non-partisan, based in the School of Public Policy at University College London.

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