Democracy without limits: no more undemocratic thresholds in Europe

Some people are systematically excluded from any political representation, an unfair situation that must be addressed

By Lorena López de Lacalle, EFA President and Manuela Ripa, MEP.

All European citizens are equal. That is the basic principle of European democracy. Nevertheless, when it comes to their political representation, some citizens get a greater share than others. Some people are systematically excluded from getting any seats in parliaments, which means that their voices are never considered in political decisions that directly affect them.

Electoral thresholds are a big part of this problem, leaving millions across the EU without any say in their institutions. The result is that parliaments do not reflect the diverse nature of European society. This is an unfair situation that should be addressed by removing or lowering electoral thresholds at the European, national, and regional levels. At the very least, it is vital that no new thresholds are introduced that could distort politics further.

An electoral threshold is the minimum share of the vote that a candidate or a political party must win to gain representation in a parliament. If no formal threshold is imposed by the electoral law, representation is limited only by the total number of available seats in the parliament. Nevertheless, in most electoral systems formal thresholds are set to exclude minoritarian options, blocking them from representation even if they would win a seat with a normal distribution. Those seats then stay in the hands of the bigger parties. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recommends that thresholds should be no higher than 3%. In practice most European countries have significantly higher barriers.

This is not merely an academic complaint. Thresholds have serious consequences on our democracy by leaving a high percentage of voters unrepresented. The results of some recent elections in EU member states should worry everyone who believes in representative democracy. In the 2020 Parliamentary election in Slovakia, more than a quarter of the total voters remained unrepresented (28,39%). In Slovenia, too, after the last election in 2022, 24% of the total votes were thrown into the rubbish thanks to the threshold. The same applies to large member states with supposedly stable party systems: almost 20% of the votes cast in the 2019 European elections in France went to parties that did not cross the 5% threshold, leaving one fifth of the voting population without any seats.

These numbers may seem outrageous. But far from removing this barrier to representation, big parties are proposing to set up new ones. In Germany, a 2% threshold has been proposed for the European elections. If such a barrier had been imposed in the last elections in 2019, it would have meant that a whopping 1.7 million vote would have resulted in 0 seats. That’s more than the entire population of Estonia.

Losing the voices of those voters is not just a denial of their right to democracy. It also narrows the political ideas represented. Debates become poorer. The only ones who benefit are the big parties, who can reduce politics to a game of just two or three power blocks. This naturally leads to confrontational, highly polarised politics, as has become typical in majoritarian systems like the UK or the USA. This is not how Europe should work.

The European Union is founded on the principle of democracy and should value every one of its citizens equally. Moreover, the EU is a cooperative project: it is supposedly “united in diversity”. It is therefore urgent that European politicians should be able to work together and listen to all the voices that make up our diverse societies. That is only possible with fair electoral systems.

Deliberate exclusion of minorities

Electoral thresholds potentially disenfranchise any citizen who casts their vote for a smaller party. But there are some groups that are especially targeted. Minority communities, who by nature represent a smaller section of their country’s society, are often systematically excluded from participating in political debate. Using electoral barriers to keep them out of legislatures is a common tactic used across Europe. For example, in Greece, the party representing the Turkish minority (1.2% of the population) is blocked by a nationwide 3% threshold – even despite coming first in 2 electoral constituencies.

Romania provides us with another curious example. There is a 5% threshold for parties. This already high barrier rises to 10% for any electoral coalition with multiple parties. This system forces minorities to choose between two options.

On the one hand, they can depend on the legislature to guarantee them a single seat, which forces them to comply with the demands of the government. On the other, they can contest elections as normal – but only as one party, forcing the entire community to abandon electoral plurality and support a single electoral ticket.

Thus the Hungarians, who, with more than a million people, make up 6% of the population of Romania, in practice only have a single party they can vote for. If other parties were to stand, it would split the vote and the whole community would lose out. This, again, means the majority government can keep the minority under control.

The democracy we want

Democracy without limits is not an unrealistic expectation. In the Netherlands there are notably low percentages of unrepresented voters: only 1.99% of the voters in the 2021 election. This is only possible due to the Dutch electoral system having no formal threshold. As representation is only limited by the number of available seats, the effective threshold is only 0.67%. This leads to a healthy tradition of parties working together and forming coalitions made of diverse voices – the famous Poldermodel, oriented around consensus rather than confrontation, where the plurality of voices is included in political decision-making.

The European Free Alliance, being the European party for self-determination, democracy, and equality, supports this model and would like to see it replicated. Many parties working together leads to better, more effective representation – and, we believe, better decision-making and a healthier democracy. Plurality not only helps to create a diverse government, but also helps to put issues on the table that would not otherwise be there. We believe in a Europe that includes all the views and voices of its peoples. A Europe where no one is left out.

All voters are equal. Let’s make votes equal too!