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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

A federal electoral district for Belgium?

An appraisal with three amendments inspired by the Swiss experience

Nenad Stojanovic


Eleggere parte dei deputati in un unico collegio elettorale federale, che comprenda tutto il territorio del Belgio? Questo articolo difende la tesi che tale proposta, avanzata da alcuni intellettuali belgi del "Gruppo Pavia", possa apportare un importante elemento integrativo nel modello consociativo belga, il quale, di per sé, rafforza movimenti centrifughi. Ciononostante, vi e un elemento della proposta - le quote linguistiche - che crea almeno due problemi: (a) il problema della legittimità, e (b) il problema delle quote non territoriali. In base all'esperienza svizzera, l'articolo propone perciò tre emendamenti: media geometrica per determinare i rappresentanti delle singole regioni, quote territoriali piuttosto che linguistiche, sistema elettorale maggioritario invece del proporzionale

Texte intégral


1Deschouwer and Van Parijs (2009) argue that the political philosophy underlying their proposal for a federal electoral district in Belgium (known as the Pavia Group proposal) is based on the belief that intelligent institutional engineering can provide concrete solutions for linguistically heterogeneous polities such as Belgium or the European Union.

2The proposal consists of creating a single federal electoral district in Belgium, from which 15 of the 150 federal parliamentarians would be elected according to a proportional representation (PR) formula. Every citizen, thus, could cast two votes: one within his/her electoral district (as today), and one within the single federal district. The system of open party lists would allow citizens to vote not only for a party but also for single candidates from the same party list. Its authors hope that this proposal would provide incentives to politicians and the media to cross linguistic boundaries. For their part, voters would have an incentive to vote for candidates from a language group other than their own.

3If implemented, this proposal would clearly move Belgium away from the present consociational model (Lijphart 2004), and towards the logic of the so-called ”integrative school” (Horowitz 2002).

4In this paper, I will first briefly evaluate the Pavia Group proposal by drawing attention to two disadvantages of one of its features, i.e. the reserved seats for language groups: (a) the legitimacy problem, and (b) the problem of non-territorial quotas. I will then illustrate this problem by discussing two examples from Switzerland in which a single electoral district has been either implemented or envisaged. Finally, I will propose three amendments to the proposal.

Two problems related to reserved seats

  • 1 Deschouwer and Van Parijs (2009: 16) defend the quotas with the following argument: In the absence (...)

5At least one element of the Pavia Group proposal should attract our attention and arise our scepticism: the use of a linguistic quota (i.e., reserved seats) in the federal electoral district that fixes in advance the number of seats for Dutch speakers (nine) and for French speakers (six)1

  • 2 In the context of Belgium, the quota provision envisaged by the Pavia Group proposal might weaken t (...)

6First, such quotas are problematic for the stability of democracy in divided societies. If they are too rigid, with permanently defined proportions, they are difficult to amend even if circumstances (e.g., demographics) demand it (e.g., Lebanon). Moreover, they can undermine the overall legitimacy of the political system if the citizen-electors of one group can influence, in a considerable way, who occupies the seats reserved for another (often rival) group. I will call this the legitimacy problem2

7Second, group rights such as quotas based on non-territorial identity markers (language, ethnicity, religion, etc.) are problematic for a liberal democracy based on individual rights attributed on the basis of territorially-linked citizenship and of membership in non-territorially defined groups. Therefore, as a general rule, such quotas should be avoided in free and democratic liberal societies (see Stojanovic 2008; Rehfeld 2010). I will call this the problem of non-territorial quotas.

8Let me illustrate the two problems related to quotas by taking two examples from Switzerland. The first example deals with the legitimacy problem. The second illustrates both the legitimacy and the non-territorial quota problems.

1. The reserved seat for French-speakers in the Berne government

  • 3 According to the 2000 census, 79% of the 51504 citizens of JB were French speakers.

9The canton of Berne is the second largest Swiss canton, both in terms of territory and population. Its two official languages are German and French. Yet French is the sole official language of the region of Jura bernois (hereafter JB), both languages are official in the municipality of Biel/Bienne, and the sole official language in the rest of the canton is German. French speakers are in a minority position, both numerically and politically (72400 or 7.6%, including non Swiss citizens). 56% of Berne’s French speakers live in JB3.

  • 4 This provision is neither a fully non-territorial linguistic quota (it does not include all French (...)
  • 5 SDA-ATS, 3 April 1986.
  • 6 Der Bund, 7 May 1986.
  • 7 Berner Zeitung, 12 May 1986.
  • 8 Der Bund, 15 May 1986.

10The government of the canton of Berne is composed of seven representatives. It is elected every four years in a majoritarian electoral system with two turns. There is only one electoral district and it corresponds to the cantonal territory. A special constitutional and legal provision, adopted after the separation of the northern part of Jura in 1979, guarantees one seat to the French-speaking minority of JB4 This provision worked fine in the 1982 election but as early as 1986 a significant problem had arisen. A well-known politician from JB and member of the federal parliament, Genevieve Aubry, was defeated in the second run by the relatively-unknown Benjamin Hofstetter by a margin of 7680 votes at the level of the canton of Berne. But his election was contested by some Jurassiens on the grounds that in JB itself, Ms. Aubry had won with a margin of 3508 votes. On the eve of the second run, the president of the main JB party in one of the Jura districts declared that ”JB will never accept Benjamin Hofstetter as its representative in the government,”5 while Ms. Aubry dismissed him as a ”political Nobody”6. Moreover, Hofstetter was a bilingual French/German of Swiss-German origin7 and some Jurassiens did not consider him a ”true” representative of JB. In the aftermath of the election, the Free Democrats from the Canton of Berne, the main losers of the elections, declared their ”regret” that the ”desire of JB was over voted by the old [i.e., Germans-peaking] part of the canton”8

  • 9 Source: NZZ, 12 May 1986. Der Bund 26 November 2001.

Table 1. The 1986 cantonal election in Berne. Results of the two candidates from Jura bernois9

11Recognizing the dilemma of what I term the legitimacy problem – a quota filled by a person who can hardly be considered a legitimate representative of the group he is meant to represent – cantonal authorities sought a mechanism that would prevent similar situations (and further frustrations of the French-speaking minority) in the future. They wanted to limit the risk that the canton’s German-speaking majority could overpower the will of a majority of JB’s inhabitants to elect its representative.

12The solution was the geometric mean. It works as follows: for every candidate from JB, the number of votes obtained in that region is multiplied by the number of votes received in the whole canton (including JB); the geometric mean is the result of the square root of that multiplication. The reserved seat is filled by the candidate from JB with the highest geometric mean. In other words, this solution gives more weight, but not exclusive weight, to the voters of JB in the selection of their representative. The following table illustrates the mechanism.

Table 2. Geometric mean

13Under the previous law, Candidate Z would be elected since her two rival candidates (X and Y) received fewer votes at the level of the canton. With the new system, however, Candidate Y would be elected, because he obtained the highest geometric mean. Candidate X would not be elected, even though he obtained most votes within JB; the instrument of the geometric mean does not throw the choice of their representative to a majority of Jura’s citizens alone. Rather, the representative of JB is still elected at the cantonal level but the votes she receives in JB are ”heavier”. This also means that the French-speaking candidates have an incentive to gather support across linguistic borders and not only in their home region. The same, of course, applies to German-speaking candidates, who have an incentive to seek votes from French speakers. That would not have been the case if other possible solutions had been adopted, such as the creation of a separate electoral district for JB.

14If this mechanism had existed in the 1986 election, Ms. Aubry would have been elected (geometric mean: 21’053) instead of Mr. Hofstetter (geometric mean: 16’149). The legitimacy problem would not have arisen.

2. The proposal for electing the Swiss government by popular vote

15Another way to solve the legitimacy problem and the non-territorial quota problem is illustrated by a recent proposal of the Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC). In the late 2000s, this party collected more than 100'000 signatures demanding, via a popular initiative, that the seven-member federal government be elected by the citizens in a majoritarian electoral system. So far, the government has been elected by the federal parliament. The proponents' main argument is that the people should directly elect their representatives in the federal executive branch, as they do in all Swiss cantons and in most municipalities10 The Swiss will have the opportunity to vote on this proposal, probably in 2012/2013.

  • 11 Indeed, its advocates are probably unaware of this possible effect, which is not mentioned whatsoev (...)
  • 12 In fact, although the SVP/UDC received 28.9% of the votes in the 2007 parliamentary election, it ha (...)

16In the context of our discussion, what is interesting is that the election of the government would take place within a single federal electoral district. Therefore, for our purposes, it is similar to the Pavia Group proposal, even though its objective is not to provide incentives for politicians to campaign across linguistic borders11 but rather to have a government that better reflects the popular support for various political parties12

17However, one possible disadvantage of this proposal is that it might endanger the presence of linguistic minority groups (French and Italian speakers) in the government, since the first language of around 70% of the Swiss electorate is German (and/or a Swiss German dialect). Realistically, how can a French or Italian speaker, with a good knowledge of German but no fluency in Swiss German, run an electoral campaign in the Germans-peaking regions of Switzerland and have a fair chance of being elected? The authors of the SVP/UDC proposal anticipated that critique by including a quota for French and Italian speakers: at least two of the seven seats shall be reserved for them.

  • 13 This problem is potential but not actual. Informal conventions and political pressure will certainl (...)

18However, unlike the Pavia Group proposal, this is not really a non-territorial linguistic quota. Rather, it is a territorial quota that indirectly and implicitly ensures a representation for French and Italian speakers. It states that at least two of the seven elected members of government must have their residence in the French or Italian speaking areas of Switzerland. In other words, nothing prevents a German speaker who lives, for example, in the Italian-speaking canton Ticino to run for the government and to take advantage of this provision in spite of the fact that her mother tongue is neither French nor Italian13 Such a quota thus remains compatible with liberal democratic principles and avoids the problem of non-territorial quotas discussed above.

19This does not address the legitimacy problem, however: citizens from German-speaking areas of Switzerland, by virtue of their numerical majority, could determine who fills the seats that are supposed to represent the French and Italian-speaking areas in the government too. For this reason the proposal contains the rule of geometric mean, imitating the model applied in the canton of Berne. For the two seats reserved for French and Italianspeaking areas, the votes of their citizens will have more weight than the votes of the citizens in German-speaking areas.

Implications for the Pavia Group proposal? Three amendments

  • 14 For reasons of space I cannot here elaborate on the advantages of a majoritarian over a PR electora (...)

20The Swiss examples illustrated in the previous section lead me to propose the following amendments to the Pavia Group proposal. First, ensure the linguistic balance through territorial instead of linguistic non-territorial quotas. Second, apply the geometric mean. Third, use a majoritarian system instead of open list PR14

21Here are the main features of the amended proposal:

22I. 15 of the 150 members of the federal parliament are elected in a single federal electoral district (Belgium). [This is the very core of the Pavia Group proposal.]

23II. Every citizen has a maximum of 5 preferential votes to assign to individual candidates. This gives him/her a genuine opportunity to influence the election of his preferred candidates. (Apart from that, he has another vote for one of the party lists – or some of the candidates featured on one of the lists – presented in a provincial electoral district. See Deschouwer and Van Parijs (2009: 14).)

24III. Only a given number of candidates are elected to the parliament from each of the following three regions:

25Flanders: (population ca. 6.25 million): 9 seats

26Wallonia (population ca. 3.50 million): 5 seats

27Brussels (population ca. 1.09 million): 2 seats15

28If we were to stop at these three points, the proposal would enable the citizens of the Flemish region to elect a candidate from the Walloon region, and vice versa, and/or it would enable the most numerous linguistic group (the Flemish) to elect a candidate from the Brussels region, etc. This legitimacy problem, however, is addressed by IV:

29IV. Candidates with the highest geometric mean are elected, according to the following formula:

30A: number of votes received in the Flemish region

31B: number of votes received in the Walloon region

32C: number of votes received in the Brussels region

33D: number of votes received in the entire country (=A+B+C)

34In order to fill this regional quota the following formula will be used:

359 representatives from Flanders: √A*D

365 representatives from Wallonia: √B*D

372 representatives from Brussels: √C*D

38In my view, the Pavia Group proposal, so amended, would have the following important advantages over the current system:

  • The two main linguistic groups, given their relative concentration in the regions A (Dutch speakers), B (French speakers) and C (mostly French speakers, with a minority of Dutch speakers), would have, de facto, a fair chance to be represented in the parliament (within the group of 15 MPs elected in the federal electoral district).

  • Nevertheless, the system would also be equally open to linguistic ”others” (e.g., German speakers from Wallonia, people from immigrant origin, bilingual Dutch-French speakers from Brussels, etc.).

  • All citizens, regardless of place of residence, would be able to vote for the candidates of their choice.

  • Thanks to the single electoral district and the rule of geometric mean, all candidates would be motivated to campaign throughout the whole country – not, as is currently the case, solely within their own region. This would have a strong integrative effect, which would in turn promote inter-community cooperation and compromise.

  • The use of the geometric mean would give greater weight, but not sole discretion, to the citizens from regions A, B and C for the election of MPs from their respective regions.


  • 16 The name, by the way, stems from the place where its members would gather to discuss different prop (...)

39In the 2000s Philippe Van Parijs dedicated a lot of time and energy to contributing to the solution of the Belgian political stalemate, in the finest tradition of intellectuels engages. The creation of the Pavia Group16 and the Re-Bel Initiative (”Rethinking Belgium's institutions in the European context”) testify to the importance of this involvement. The proposal of a single federal electoral district is the finest product of this engagement. It has not been confined to the academic community but has increasingly received endorsements from Belgian political leaders from both sides of the language border (see

40This article should be seen as an admiring appraisal of the Pavia Group proposal. Nevertheless, I identified two disadvantages related to the provision for reserved seats: (a) the legitimacy problem, and (b) the problem of non-territorial quotas. By drawing inspiration from the Swiss experience, I proposed two main amendments, suggesting that the first problem can be tackled using the formula of geometric mean in order to fill the seats reserved for each region, whereas the second can be solved by introducing territorial (instead of linguistic) quotas on the basis of the three existing regions. They are complemented by a third amendment, proposing the use of a majoritarian instead of a PR electoral system.



DESCHOUWER, K. & VAN PARIJS, Ph. (2009), 'A country-wide electoral district for Belgium’s federal parliament', in Electoral Engineering for a Stalled Federation, Brussels: Rethinking Belgium, 7-19.

HOROWITZ, D. (2002), 'Constitutional design: proposals versus processes', in A. Reynolds (ed.), The Architecture of Democracy: Constitutional Design, Conflict Management, and Democracy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 15-36.

LIJPHART, A. (2004), 'Constitution design for divided societies', Journal of Democracy, 15(2): 96-109.

O’LEARY, B. (2005), 'Debating consociational politics: normative and explanatory arguments', in S. Noel (ed.), From Power Sharing to Democracy. Post-Conflict Institutions in Ethnically Divided Societies. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 3-43.

REHFELD, A. (2010), 'On quotas and qualifications for office', in I. Shapiro, S. Stokes, E. Woods, & A. Kirschner (eds.), Political Representation, New York: Cambridge University Press, 236-270.

STOJANOVIC, N. (2006), 'Do multicultural democracies really require PR? Counterevidence from Switzerland', Swiss Political Science Review, 12 (4): 131-157.

STOJANOVIC, N. (2008), 'How to solve the dilemma of power sharing? Formal and informal patterns of representation in the Swiss multilingual cantons', Representation, 44(3): 239-253.


1 Deschouwer and Van Parijs (2009: 16) defend the quotas with the following argument: In the absence of quota, there is a risk – indeed a certainty in the foreseeable future – that many voters will be reluctant to support a politician from the other language group for fear of contributing to a reduction in the representation of their own group in Parliament.

2 In the context of Belgium, the quota provision envisaged by the Pavia Group proposal might weaken the impact on politicians' behavior that its advocates strive for. The reason is simple: Flemish-speaking citizens might elect French-speaking Candidate A in spite of the fact that he/she enjoys less support in his/her home region (say Wallonia) than Candidate B, also a French speaker from Wallonia. This voting behavior, if repeated over time, could undermine the overall legitimacy of the federal electoral district. In fact, it does not seem logical that citizens from all over the country can cast votes for any party list and any candidate from that party list but that, potentially, French speakers alone could decide who will occupy the Flemish quota, and vice versa.

3 According to the 2000 census, 79% of the 51504 citizens of JB were French speakers.

4 This provision is neither a fully non-territorial linguistic quota (it does not include all French speakers living in the canton of Berne), nor a fully territorial quota (it is restricted only to French speakers from JB).

5 SDA-ATS, 3 April 1986.

6 Der Bund, 7 May 1986.

7 Berner Zeitung, 12 May 1986.

8 Der Bund, 15 May 1986.

9 Source: NZZ, 12 May 1986. Der Bund 26 November 2001.

10 See Accessed 9 June 2011.

11 Indeed, its advocates are probably unaware of this possible effect, which is not mentioned whatsoever on their official website (see footnote above).

12 In fact, although the SVP/UDC received 28.9% of the votes in the 2007 parliamentary election, it has only one representative in the government. The Liberal-Radical party, on the other hand, has two representatives but only 15.7% of the votes.

13 This problem is potential but not actual. Informal conventions and political pressure will certainly prevent any major federal party from running German-speaking candidates with residence in French or Italian-speaking cantons, unless these candidates are truly rooted in those cantons and speak the local language fluently.

14 For reasons of space I cannot here elaborate on the advantages of a majoritarian over a PR electoral system in divided societies, but I discuss them elsewhere (Stojanovic 2006). I would note, however, that both the government of the canton of Berne and the proposal for popular election of the Swiss federal government use a majoritarian and not a PR system.

15 Population as of Jan. 1, 2010. Source:

16 The name, by the way, stems from the place where its members would gather to discuss different proposals: Philippes house in the Pavia street in Brussels.

Table des illustrations

Légende Table 1. The 1986 cantonal election in Berne. Results of the two candidates from Jura bernois9
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Légende Table 2. Geometric mean
Fichier image/jpeg, 78k


Nenad Stojanovic (PhD in Political Science, Zurich) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau (ZDA), and a Lecturer at the universities of Zurich and Lausanne. His articles have appeared in journals such as Representation, Swiss Political Science Review, International J. on Multicultural Societies, Nations and Nationalism, Politique & Sociétés and Ratio Juris.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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