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  • Writer's pictureWessel Groenewegen

Fair Play: The Quest for Democratic Legitimacy in a Crumbling System

In my previous article I raised the question of how democratically legitimate the current Dutch parliamentary system is. I did this in light of the concepts of governmental and societal misalignment, which indicate a strong divide in society between government and society, and explained how the forms of misalignment have led to policy making coming to a grinding halt. In this article I therefore will dive into how democratic legitimacy can be defined, what proportionality has to do with it and coming up with a proposal to increase the democratic legitimacy of the Dutch parliamentary system.

To kick off, a definition for democratic legitimacy that can be used, is the following by Saward (2010): “provisionally acceptable claims to democratic legitimacy across society are those for which there is evidence of sufficient acceptance of claims by appropriate constituencies under reasonable conditions of judgment.” When looking at a democratic system, and narrowing it down to the support of the government in the Dutch House of Representatives, one of two parts of the definition can be related to the design of the parliamentary system: sufficient acceptance.

Yet, what is sufficient support? Lijphart (2012) has two answers to this question: the majority of the people, which is mirrored the majoritarian model of democracy as seen in the United States and the United Kingdom; as many people as possible, and at least a majority, mirroring the consensus model of democracy found in for instance Germany or the Netherlands. Of course this brings us to the question, what answer is best?

I would dare to say that the current political climate in both the US and UK, characterized by the rise of Trump and the disaster of Brexit, might not be the best examples for properly functioning and stable democracies. Unfortunately, the causes for these events are not unique to these countries, because a severe form of governmental and societal misalignment is also visible in Dutch society with respect to for instance the nitrogen crisis, albeit not coming to such a severe breaking point. Therefore, the aim to come to an as large as possible majority seems to function better than the aim to come to a bare majority. What differs between the majoritarian and consensus models besides the level of unrest, is the proportionality of the respective systems. The proportionality can be seen as a measure for the quality of the acceptance required by Saward (2010). Therefore I will take a deeper look at the proportionality of the Dutch system with respect to the vote share of the governing parties.

To start off with some definitions: proportionality is the measure of how well the distribution of votes matches the distribution of seats in a parliament and therefore measures the quality of representation in parliament; the magnitude of the government vote share is the measure of the quality of representation in government, since this is what people experience through policy outcome. To thus come to an index for democratic legitimacy, the government vote share is multiplied by the proportionality, where the proportionality is one minus Gallagher’s disproportionality index divided by one hundred (1991). Here Gallaghers disproportionality index measures the total discrepancy between vote share and seat share after election. The reason for multiplying the vote share with the proportionality factor, lies in the fact that according to Gallagher, disproportionality favours the large governing parties, and therefore creates a bias in representation (1991). Besides the resulting democratic legitimacy index, I added the government seat share as a reference to show the bias resulting from the current Dutch system.

When looking at the values of the democratic legitimacy index for the past four Dutch governments as depicted in table 1, it becomes clear that three out of four governments stay below the 50% threshold for democratic legitimacy, and that the government of 2012 barely has a majority with respect to the DLI, which would be the minimal requirement according to Lijphart (2012). Furthermore, none of the governments can be said to aim for the goal of a as large possible majority, as would be typical for the consensus model as described by Lijphart, with the 2012 government coming closest with 50.5%. Therefore table 1 clearly indicates that there is a systematic lack of democratic legitimacy in the Dutch parliamentary system, raising the question on how this could be improved.

My first proposal on improving the proportionality, would be looking into the seat allocation method which in the Netherlands is the D’Hondt method, which favours larger parties over small parties. According to Gallagher (1991) the ruling parties historically favour the D’Hondt method, since it would discourage party fragmentation, yet mainly because it would give them relatively more power over the other smaller parties. Even though the D’Hondt method might make splitting up more costly for parties, the method actually strengthens the driving force behind fragmentation: people who don’t feel heard by the (potentially) governing parties and therefore start looking for alternatives.

Therefore I would like to propose the Saint-Laguë method, which according to Benoit (2000) is the most proportionate. The idea behind the Saint-Laguë method is to minimize the absolute difference between the seat share and the vote share, and thus resulting in the most equal representation of voters. The idea behind the D’Hondt method, on the other hand, is to minimize the relative difference by minimizing “the over-representation of the most over-represented party,” which will always be a smaller party and therefore uses the size of the party as weight (Gallagher, 1991).

In other words, according to the D’Hondt method, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, whereas the Saint-Laguë method keeps the sum equal to its parts, and therefore all votes and thus voters, equal. In my opinion, the Saint-Laguë method comes closest to the democratic ideal of equality. In fact, I dare to say that the choice for the D’Hondt method goes against Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution: “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.” The method namely results in discrimination on grounds of political opinion. To give an indication on how the two different methods treat parties of different magnitude, I made table 2, in which the vote pressure of the two methods is compared for the four largest and the four smallest parties after the 2021 elections. The vote pressure is defined as the amount of votes per seat.

From table 2 it becomes clear that the difference in vote pressure under the Saint-Laguë method has dramatically decreased, even so that now the small parties are now overrepresented instead of underrepresented. The slight overrepresentation of minorities however suits the democratic tendency of protecting minority rights. The importance of this tendency was emphasized by Alexis de Tocqueville (1838), who’s findings on democracy will be used in the next article.

The effect of the new method on the democratic legitimacy and on government seat share, is shown in table 3. Whilst increasing the proportionality, now three out of four of the most recent governments lost their majority in the House of Representatives in government seat share, whilst the proportionality of the system has slightly improved. Even though the DLI has slightly increased, at the end of the day, none of the before illegitimate governments have become democratically legitimate. With three out of four governments failing to reach either the 50% + 1 seat count and/or the DLI, I dare to call the D’Hondt method undemocratic. Thus, I attribute the seat allocation method as one of the sources of governmental misalignment, since too little of the population has a say in governmental policy, and therefore a systematic mismatch between the needs of the common good and the needs of the parties in government is created.

Where changing the seat allocation method does improve proportionality and the related democratic legitimacy index, and a different composition of parties could once again reach a majority, there is still an argument to be made why new coalitions could still not be called truly democratic legitimate. This stems from a different part of the definition for democratic legitimacy given by Saward (2010), namely: appropriate constituencies. Who namely is the appropriate constituency we have to consider when looking at democratic legitimacy? And how does this relate to voter turn-out? And could Tocqueville’s implications about what a properly functioning democracy is lead to a possible compensation for turn-out? Find out in my next article! Until then!


Benoit, K. (2000). Which Electoral Formula Is the Most Proportional? A New Look with New Evidence. Political Analysis, 8(4), 381-388.

Gallagher, M. (1991). Proportionality, disproportionality and electoral systems. Electoral Studies, 10(1), 33-51.

Lijphart, A. (2012). Patterns of democracy: government forms and performance in thirty-six countries (Second Edition ed.). Yale University Press.

Saward, M. (2010). The Representative Claim.

Tocqueville, A. d. (1838). Democracy in America. G. Dearborn & Co.


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