How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

By Richard Wood

Voters in Portugal went to the polls on Sunday 30 January to elect a new Assembly of the Republic, the country’s unicameral parliament. Unlike the UK, MPs are elected via a form of Proportional Representation, meaning that how people vote at the ballot box is fairly reflected in the legislature – in short, seats won broadly match votes cast.

Portugal’s 2022 election – how proportional was it?

The election took place as a consequence of opposition parties voting down the minority Socialist Party government’s budget. In the end, the Socialst Party benefitted from the election, increasing its vote share and winning an unprecedented majority of seats.

Like most European democracies, Portugal uses a form of Proportional Representation to elect MPs. This means that the proportion votes cast per party are reflected by the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature.

The contrast with UK national elections is stark. Under First Past the Post, MPs elected to Westminster are not reflective of how people vote. In 2019, the Conservatives won 43% of the vote which resulted in them getting over 50% of all seats. Parties like the Liberal Democrats and Greens went significantly underrepresented. The worst modern example of the unrepresentative nature of FPTP was the 2005 election where Tony Blair’s Labour achieved a majority of seats on just 35% of the vote.

Overall, Portugal’s elections are fairly proportional, as seen time and time again at each Portugese election. There is a link between seats and votes unlike in the UK where that link is distorted by single-member constituencies.

However, the 2022 election has exposed a flaw with the particular PR system used by Portugal. The Socialist Party won a majority of seats (117 out of 230) on a minority of votes (41.7%).

Meanwhile the centre-right Social Democrats won 76 seats (33%) on 29.3% of the vote, while the far-right Chega secured 12 seats (5.2%) on 7.2% of the vote. The Liberal Initiative won 8 seats (3.5%) on 5% of the vote, the Communist Party won 6 seats (2.6%) on 4.4% of the vote and the Left Bloc won 5 seats (2.2%) on 4.5% of the vote. People Animals Nature and Livre each won the two remaining seats.

The results are only broadly proportional as the largest party won far more than it should have under a totally fair system. In theory this shouldn’t happen under a PR system but the mechanics of Portugal’s system helped lead to this surprise outcome. It is also worth noting than the country’s smaller parties received less representation than their share of the vote suggests they would be entitled to.

The reasons for Portugal’s disproportionality are explained below.

READ MORE: Mixed-member Proportionality – how do Scotland’s and Germany’s voting systems compare?

What type of Proportional Representation does Portugal use? Could it be better?

The country elects 230 MP for provisionally four-year terms (although in practice this is often less than that due to snap elections). The country is split into 20 multi-member constituencies each electing between two and 48 members (the largest being the capital Lisbon), as well as two overseas constituencies (Europe and the rest of the world). This in principle, means there is a strong link between votes cast and seats won, however, in practice that is not always the case.

Crucially, there is no mechanism to ensure national proportionality which in part explains the surprise majority of seats won by the Socialists. In contrast, Scandinavian party list systems have mechanisms to ensure national proportionality rather than just proportionality per multi-member constituency. Furthermore, Portugese seat distributions are determined by the D’hondt system (common across Europe), which on the whole gives a slight advantage to larger parties at the expense of smaller ones. This too can explain how the 2022 Portugese election came to be.

For those interested in how D’Hondt works and how it compares to different methods, the Electoral Reform Society has an excellent summary which can be read here.

READ MORE: Campaigners rally against UK Government’s regressive Elections Bill

But it’s not all about proportionality – how powerful are the voters?

Members are elected on closed party lists meaning that voters vote for parties and have no say in the ordering of lists presented. This means that while voters have a high chance of getting their party into parliament (due to multi-member constituencies), they have no say over who gets elected from their chosen party. Again, this is in contrast with the likes of Denmark and Iceland where voters have a say over the order of candidates elected to the Assembly.

Interestingly, these closed lists and the D’Hondt element make Portugal’s system one that most closely resembles how the UK used to determine members of the European Parliament (although the number of MPs elected per constituency is wildly different).

So how good is Portugal’s voting system overall? When it comes to proportionality, there is a strong link between how people vote and how they are represented in parliament. There are arguably better ways to calculate seat distributions than D’Hondt and the lack of a mechanism to ensure overall proportionality weakens the link between seats and votes on a Portgual-wide scale. This weakening in the link was dramatically exposed in the 2022 election. The system clearly needs reform but overall the system means results are broadly proportional.

In addition, another flaw is the fact that party lists are closed. Unlike in countries such as Norway, voters in Portugal have no say in the ranking of candidates on party lists. Proportionality is extremely important but so to is voter choice. If a country opts for list PR rather than say ranked choice voting in multi-member seats (PR-STV) the lists should be open to empower voters and to avoid giving too much power to party bosses.

READ MORE: Scotland’s STV proportional system shows England a better way for local democracy

What lessons can the UK learn from Portugal?

The first lesson that UK democracy can learn from Portugal is that the principal of Proportional Representation ensures broadly representation outcomes.

However, the second lesson is that not all PR systems are as effective as each other when it comes to ensuring proportional outcomes. Yes, in Portugal there is a correlation of seats and votes but it is far from as accurate as it could be. The UK should take that into account when designing a proportional electoral system.

Lastly, the lack of candidate choice in Portugal’s closed list party system is a significant impediment to voter power. Any future PR system adopted at Westminster should empower voters when it comes to selecting candidates not just parties.

Portugal’s voting system is not the one for the UK, but we should learn from its benefits and its flaws when it comes to designing a representative system at Westminster.

READ MORE: Canada’s 2021 election – the striking flaws of First Past the Post exposed

3 thoughts on “How proportional was Portugal’s election? Lessons for the UK’s broken democracy

  1. Yes, Portugal’s model would not be the right one for the UK. As you say the proportionality is confined to the multi-member constituencies as was the case here in our previous Euro elections with the result that voters in the North East England Euro constituency barely experienced any real form of PR since they only elected 3 MEPS!
    Portugal should have national levelling seats so as to ensure full proportionality at the national level as Denmark does and avoid results like the one you have described.
    My belief is that Britain should aim to have the German Mixed Member Proportional Representation system with First Past The Post single member constituencies being retained to provide a local link to Westminster plus a 50% or near enough ‘top-up’ list system being bolted on to ensure seats match votes and parties are proportionally represented in the House of Commons.
    The worst aspect of Germany’s system is that these state lists are ‘closed’ ones as in Portugal so you can’t, as a voter, vote for an individual candidate within the party list and thereby have to accept the party’s ranking of its candidates. I would change our version of Germany’s system to make these lists ‘open’ so a voter can endorse an individual candidate on these lists and move them up the list thereby making their election more likely.

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  2. Germany also has a threshold for having a party’s vote share proportionately represented of 5% of the national vote. This was put into place to make the party system more stable and to avoid an excessive fragmentation of the parliament with too many tiny micro parties bunging up parliament thereby making stable and effective governments hard to form as occurred in the Weimar Republic. 5% is quite steep though and it could be lowered a bit to say 3 or 4% and still perform this function. Indeed, there are a few parties in Germany calling for this to happen.

    I would have a threshold of 3-4% of the national vote. That figure discourages the entry of too many minuscule parties into parliament but is not high enough to start to waste too many votes like 5% does.

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