Please note that, unless explicitly stated otherwise, all first person accounts are simply that; they do not represent any type of official position. The tollowing first person accounts written specifically for this blog are from 1) Henk van der Kolk, and 2) David Hulshuis.
1) Observations of Henk van der Kolk, a Political Science Professor at the University of Twente, The Netherlands
On December 14, 2006, the Dutch CA officially presents its proposal for an amended version of the current electoral system. The CA decided on this proposal the weekend of November 10-11. The CA’s proposal is to introduce the option of a 'list vote' and to abolish the individual threshold currently used in The Netherlands. In addition, the members proposed to change D'Hondt for Hare, which will slightly benefit the smallest parties. The members clearly signaled a dislike of 'districts' : the CA proposed to keep the current single district. Even the 'German' mixed-system was in the end not strongly supported. STV or SMD systems were seen as very remote from current (party) politics, without offering a solution to the current political problems. The advice, prepared by the office supporting the CA and amended by the members, is short (about 10 pages in print) and is (even by some critics) conceived to be coherent and to the point.
The final stages of the decision making process
Final decisions were made in the weekend of November 10. The meeting started early to discuss the two remaining alternatives; (1) a slightly amended version of the current system (reintroducing Hare and lowering the individual threshold to 12,5%) and (2) an alternative introducing the party vote and abolishing the individual threshold. These two alternatives were supported by relatively large groups. Other alternatives (two rather complicated ‘new’ systems, a system where voters were ‘in a way’ able to panache and a mixed system) were voted down in the weekend in October.
The final votes were on Friday afternoon in order to make the evening news. Several television stations indeed paid some attention to the decisions taken with animations of the system (prepared by the office of the CA and with short interviews, mainly with the chairperson Jacobine Geel). In a semi final vote, the two remaining alternatives were put to vote. In that vote, alternative 2 appeared to be supported strongly compared to alternative 1. In a final vote, alternative 1 appeared to be preferred to the current system. The members decided to put some specific guidelines about the operation of the system in the final report, which is therefore quite specific.
The most contested part on Friday and Saturday was a discussion about ‘additional recommendations’. Some members wanted to include advice about a directly elected prime minister, referenda etc.. Others thought this would harm the proposal and claimed these issues were not discussed enough. One additional recommendation (adopted on Friday evening) was the ban on ‘leaving the party’ (crossing the floor). After this vote, some members realized this would lead to an even stronger position of parties and factions, while abolishing the individual threshold. Friday night and Saturday morning some members strongly lobbied to get this element out of the report. This create some tension in the group and the chair asked all members whether they wanted to vote again. A majority asked for a revote and after this the additional recommendation was indeed dropped from the document. After this sequence of events one of the members left the assembly (although some claimed he was already planning to leave the assembly early). Most other additional recommendations were then not adopted by the members. Even some very mild suggestions for additional research are not in the final report.
The CA as an experiment
This was the first CA in The Netherlands and it has always also been seen as an experiment. As an experiment, it was a success. It was shown that a randomly selected group (although the ‘random nature’ can be discussed, since only about 1,500 out of 50,000 were able and willing to participate) of citizens, supported by a staff of civil servants and a chairperson, can agree on an acceptable document containing a reasonable opinion about a very complex issue. During the process, all aspects of decision making were intensively discussed and evaluated and the bureau is planning to make an extensive written evaluation. Since the analysis of a series of surveys among members is not finished yet, an overall evaluation of the process is still tentative.
The expertise of the members
Whether this group was in the end better able to think about and discuss electoral systems than, for example, my students in the university, is not entirely clear. Many (I even think most) members were in the end not really ‘experts’. The fact that even the final votes were strongly influenced by some discussions on the final days, suggests that many members still did not have strong opinions (or knowledge).
However, some members were experts, knowing perfectly what they were doing. The course of events, however, forced the ‘experts’ to narrow down the range of alternatives quite soon. Since districts and individualized systems (like STV) were disliked more or less from the start, while proportionality (and political parties) was almost sacrosanct, no-one was really interested in the details of these non-PR systems and expertise on these systems did not really develop. Even expertise about panache and cumulating votes (aspects of PR systems) was virtually absent, since most members did not like this idea. Many experts therefore headed for a viable, not too different, and simple system. Thus, expertise was limited and largely developed on the basis of the viable alternatives as seen at the beginning of the summer (after the consultation phase).
There is therefore at least a grain of truth in the often heard assessment that CAs are no experts and that this kind of deliberative democracy has its limits. But again, this was a complex issue.
Comparison with the CA in BC
The Dutch CA was an echo of the CA in British Columbia, but was in several respects very different. First of all, it was less intense. The number of meetings was smaller and the length of all meetings was shorter. Secondly, there will be no referendum. Thirdly, probably because the issue of the electoral system was not as much on the agenda as it was in BC, it was hardly discussed in the media. Newspapers, “experts,” and others were hardly giving clues, ideas, or comments. The CA more or less operated on its own. It will therefore be interesting to see how the opinions of its members developed compared to those in BC.
The advice is given to the government on Tuesday, and since the advice is so close to the current system, will hardly harm parties and already was the choice of one of the most likely coalition partners (social democrats of the PvdA) there is more than a small chance it will be adopted.
--Henk van der Kolk, Professor, University of Twente, The Netherlands
2) Observations of David Hulshuis, Member, Netherlands Citizens Assembly
The Dutch citizen's assembly has reached consensus and has presented its proposal for a new electoral system! The assembly has come up with an electoral system that retains the strengths and simplicity of the current system - such as high proportionality, a low electoral threshold, one district, one vote and open lists - while at the same time giving the voter the choice of voting on a party or a person and giving more influence on who will gain a seat in parliament.
On November 10 and 11, the assembly held its final weekend in The Hague. Friday the 10th was an important day for the assembly as it voted for it's final proposal. After some final discussions and clarifications the two proposals that were still "in the race" after the previous weekend were put to the vote: one being the final proposal, the other being a system very similar to the current system with a lower preferential threshold. The final proposal was voted for by an overwhelming majority of 82% of the total votes. Subsequently, the proposal was compared to the current system and voted for with a large majority of 89%. In other words, there clearly seems to be consensus among the members as to what would be the best electoral system for the Netherlands!
During the voting, camera crews and journalists were present to report on the event. The same night, the assembly and its proposal were main topics on various major national news bulletins and current affair programs. That evening, the assembly voted on additional advice to be included in its report. Although many proposals for additional advice had been done, only a few made it in the final report, all focusing on the responsibility and credibility of MPs and the involvement and participation of citizens. One advice was to organize citizens' assemblies more often as it is a great way to involve citizens and to let the people speak. The next day was spent discussing concept texts for the report and proposing alterations. The weekend, and thus the assembly, was concluded with a dinner and a party afterwards. Clearly, most members were sorry that the assembly was over. It seems to have been a very inspirational and enriching experience to all, with the added joy of meeting many new people.
So what does the proposed system look like? It is a proportional system where the voter can choose to vote either on a party of his choice – supporting the party list, or to give a preferential vote to a specific candidate. This means, that when a party wins 30 seats - based both on party and people votes - and 30% of the votes were votes on the party, 10 seats will be assigned according to the party list order. The other 20 seats will be assigned to those 20 candidates with most preferential votes. Instead of the current system for distribution of residual seats according to largest averages, the method of largest surpluses will be used, in order not to give preferential treatment to the largest parties.
The system remains simple and very proportional like the current system, but it also assures that all MPs have a mandate: they either win their seat based directly on preferential votes (without a preferential threshold), or they gain a seat based on party votes, which is an indirect mandate as voters have implicitly agreed with the list order. This is different from our current system where most MPs have no real mandate and seats are nearly always assigned according to the party list. Voters thus have more influence on who will be on a seat. Also, there will no longer be confusion on what votes are votes on the party leader and what are party votes. For politicians, the system means that it will become even more important to gain credibility and to communicate with the voter. It also opens up new possibilities for candidates to campaign for specific regions or professional groups for example. Although content should be the foremost concern, this system also acknowledges the growing importance of individual candidates.
Although at first it seemed the assembly would come up with more drastic changes, perhaps a mixed member system of some sorts, along the way it became clear that most members were rather content with the current system, particularly its proportionality and simplicity. By radically changing a system, you will never know for sure what effects it will have on elections and the political culture and climate. At the same time, many of the perceived problems in politics are attributed not so much to the systems, but rather to the activities of MPs and parties. These problems cannot simply be changed by altering the electoral system. The proposed electoral system may therefore not seem very radical, but it does include some serious changes when it comes to the mandate of MPs.
In the days after the final assembly weekend, many newspapers, both national and regional, have reported on the citizens' assembly advice. However, the report has not officially been presented to the government yet. As national elections were held on November 22, the report came out during the campaigning period. The official presentation of the report to Minister of Government Reform Atzo Nicolaï will therefore take place in The Hague on December 14. It is now up to politicians to take the next steps, but what will happen with the advice is yet unclear as coalition formations are currently taking place and will probably take long due to surprising and difficult election results. The (centre) right-wing Christian Democrats are once again the largest party, but the Socialist Party have nearly tripled in parliament and there has been a shift towards the political left with a social / centre-left majority for many issues. It remains unclear what coalition will form and what it will do with the advice. The assembly's initiator, Democrats 66 (D66), has nearly been wiped out, with only two seats left in parliament. Although it might take some time before anything is done at all with the advice, a group of assembly members will follow the process and make sure the advice does not end somewhere gathering dust.
Overall, I think the assembly has been a success. Even if nothing will be done with the advice, this project has still shown the possibilities of citizen participation. I had never expected that such a diverse group of people would come up with such a widely supported, well-founded advisory report. Even though the topic of the assembly was rather complex and very abstract at times, most participants have put in a lot of effort to understand the matter at hand and critically discuss the issues at length. Although I am sure that some people will have had difficulties understanding - even in the final phase, the majority of the members have learned a lot and have invested much time and energy in the assembly. What struck me most in the whole process is how emotionally involved many people get in the assembly. This probably emphasizes how important the assembly was to many of its members. It was very clear from the beginning that the assembly's success was dependent on its members, but also for a large part on the chairwoman and the secretariat, in order to keep on schedule and to keep the assembly together. They have done a wonderful job! I surely hope there will be more projects like these in the Netherlands, and should I ever have the chance to be part of a citizens' assembly again, I definitely won't need to think twice!