Social Democrat June 1908

The Belgian and Prussian Electoral Systems

Source: Social Democrat, from Times and Daily News, Vol. XII No. 6 June 15, 1908, pp. 274-277;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Note by transcriber. The Mass Strikes of which Rosa Luxemburg wrote were around the issue of the franchise in Belgium and Saxony, the latter of which was similar to Prussia.

The notable victory of our Belgian comrades in the recent election, lends especial interest to the following description of the electoral system of Belgium, which we take from the “Times”: –

“Half the members of the Chamber of Deputies retire every two years. It is not exactly half, because there are nine provinces in the country, so that there are elections in four and five of them alternately. This year there are elections in East Flanders, Hainault, Liege, and Limbourg, and there are 81 members to be elected out of a total of 166. The Chamber last session was composed of 89 Catholics, 45 Liberals, 1 Christian Democrat, and 31 Socialists, giving a Catholic majority of 12. Of the outgoing Deputies there are in East Flanders 16 Catholics, 7 Liberals, Christian Democrat, and 2 Socialists; in Hainault 10 Catholics, 9 Liberals, and 9 Socialists; in Liege 8 Catholics, 5 Liberals, and 8 Socialists; and in Limbourg 5 Catholics and 1 Liberal – a total of 39 Catholics, 22 Liberals, 1 Christian Democrat, and 19 Socialists.

“There are elections for the Senate also. Of the 39 outgoing Senators there are in East Flanders 10 Catholics, 2 Liberals, and Radical; in Hainaut 4 Catholics, 6 Liberals, and 4 Radical-Socialists; in Liege 3 Catholics and 6 Liberal-Radicals; and in Limbourg 3 Catholics.


“The electoral campaign is on the customary lines. The Congo question is not much in evidence, except among the Socialists, who find in the financial conditions of the treaty a most convenient weapon. But the old cries are still the chief ones, and the Socialists are relying for their votes rather on their demands for compulsory, non-clerical education, universal suffrage, and the reduction and reform of military service, and on the happy issue out of all their troubles which they look for in a comprehensive programme of State Socialism.

“The Liberals also take their stand upon educational, military, and electoral reform. Up to a certain point they are prepared to unite with the common enemy, and in several constituencies a cartel, or arrangement, has been arrived at whereby the Liberals and Socialist candidates will appear on the same list. But for the most part the Liberals consider this alliance more likely to hurt than to help them. What they, like the Socialists, do most ardently desire is the freeing of education from clerical influence, which is one of the great standing grievances in this country to-day.

“The military reform desired by Liberals and Socialists alike consists mainly in the abolition of the present system of remplacement, whereby a conscript can buy himself a substitute for a sum not exceeding £72, and which is naturally considered to give an unfair advantage to the more prosperous classes. The electoral reform has to do with the partial, if not the entire, abolition of plural voting. At present every citizen over 25 years of age, who has lived for a year in the same commune, has a vote. Everyone 35 years of age who is the head of a family has a second vote. Everyone over 25 who has an annual income from real property of at least £1 18s. 5d., or an income of £4 a year from the Belgian funds, either directly or indirectly through the savings bank, has an extra vote. The three votes, which are the maximum, may also be made up with the help of a supplementary vote given for the possession of certain diplomas or certificates of higher education or the holding of certain posts. To the Liberals the property vote is the most obnoxious, because of the power which it gives to the small yeoman and tenant farmers, who are the backbone of the Clerical Party, and if plural voting were abolished they would probably unite on the lines of one man one vote.


“Stripped of all complications which do not affect the principle, the system of proportional representation which has prevailed in Belgium since 1900 is as follows:-

“Each of the three parties – Catholic, Liberal, and Socialist – in a constituency makes out a list of candidates. There is naturally a good deal of competition as to the order in which the list is to be drawn up, but the matter is ultimately settled between the local party organisation and headquarters. Independent groups may also present lists, or an individual may come forward on his own account; but, for reasons which will presently appear, this practice can seldom be profitable, and is always strongly deprecated by the party managers. The elector, who, by the way, unless he has a valid excuse, is obliged by law to vote, under penalties rising from a reprimand and a fine of from 1f. to 3f., to a fine of 25f. with the placarding of his name, disfranchisement for ten years, and debarment from official nomination or advancement during that time, receives a polling paper for each of his votes. On this he can blacken with a pencil a white bull’s-eye in the middle of a black square either at the head of the list which he prefers, or beside the name of any particular candidate. In the latter case he really votes for the list as a whole, but expresses a personal preference for the candidate against whose name he has made his mark.

“Then, supposing there are four lists in an election for five seats, and that the total votes cast are respectively: List No. 1, 24,000; No. 2, 11,000; No. 3, 9,000; No. 4, 3,000, the first thing to be done is to discover the number of candidates elected in each list. This is achieved by finding the “electoral divisor” – that is to say, ‘the number of votes which a candidate must obtain in order to be elected at all. The total of each list is divided successively by 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on, thus: –

List No. 1. No. 2. No. 3. No. 4.
Divided by 1 24,000 11,000 9,000 3,000
Divided by 2 12,000 5,500 4,500 -
Divided by 3 8,000 - - -
Divided by 4 6,000 - - -

"The five highest numbers (there are five seats to be filled) are 24,000, 12,000, 11,000, 9,000, and 8,000. Eight thousand, then, is the “electoral divisor.” Now, in List No.1 there are three quotients of not less than 8,000, in No. 2 one, and in No. 3 one, or, to put it otherwise, 8,000 will ‘go’ three times into the total of 24,000 of No.1, once into the 11,000 of No. 2, once into the 9,000 of No. 3, and not at all into the 3,000 of No. 4. List No. I, then, gets three seats, No. 2 one, No. 3 one, and No. 4 none.

“The actual candidates elected in each list are discovered by taking into consideration the personal votes obtained by each and making up the essential number of 8,000 by adding to the personal as many votes as may be required by drawing from the total votes given to the list pure and simple, as from a kind of pool. Thus, suppose the total 24,000 of the List No.1 includes 4,000 votes given to individual candidates, there will be a pool of 20,000. If the first man on the list has received, say, 500 personal votes, he draws 7,500 from the pool, leaving 12,500. The pool is further drawn upon for electing the next man, and so on. As the pool becomes exhausted it is clear that a man low on the list who, from personal popularity, has obtained a large number of individual votes may be elected over the heads of candidates higher up who have been less favoured. But in practice the great majority of the electors vote for the party list without designating any particular candidate.”


The “Daily News” thus describes the “three class” voting system for the Prussian Parliament, against which our Berlin comrades have been so vigorously agitating of late:-

“In Prussia, the members of the Lower House are elected by indirect suffrage and public ballot. It works thus: The taxpayers in each district are divided into three classes, according to the proportion of their tax payments. The total sum of the direct taxes paid is divided by three. As many of the largest taxpayers as together pay in a single district one-third of that total sum form the first class of electors; as many more of the smaller taxpayers as together pay the second third, form the second class; the third class consists of all the other taxpayers who pay the remaining third. Each of these classes has the same number of votes in returning the representatives of the district ‘Wahl-männer,’ with whom rests the final election of the member of the Diet. One representative, or Wahlmann, is elected from every complete number of 230 souls. Therefore, the country is divided into electoral districts of not less than 250, and not more than 5,749 souls, so that in each district from 3 to 6 representatives are elected. The thoroughly plutocratic character of this system is clear. There are a great many districts in which a single taxpayer paying the whole first third of the aggregate taxation of the district commands the same vote as hundreds of third class electors.

“This monstrous system is further intensified by the peculiar division of the electoral districts. It has often occurred that a member of the Prussian Cabinet was elected, according to taxes paid, in the third class, whilst his secretary was an elector in the second, and his tailor of the first class. For there are districts in Berlin where one has to pay 291,813 marks taxes to be elector in the first class, and in other districts, especially the suburbs, only 32 marks are necessary for the same purpose. Prince Buelow, for instance, though having £5,000 salary and a large private fortune, is not an elector of the first class, but of the second.”

* * *

“Social-Democracy neither swears by private property nor does it demand its division. It demands its socialisation, and the equality which it strives for is the equal right of all to the products of social labour. Again, the social freedom which it asks for is neither freedom to dispose arbitrarily of the means of production and to produce at will, but the limitation of the necessary labour through the gathering in of those capable of working and through the most extended application of labour-saving machinery and methods. In this way the necessary labour which cannot be free, but must be socially regulated, can be reduced to a minimum for all, and to all a sufficient time assured of freedom, for free artistic and scientific activity, for free enjoyment of life. Social freedom – we do not speak here of political – through the greatest possible shortening of the period of necessary labour: that is freedom as meant by the Social-Democracy.” – KARL KAUTSKY in “Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History.”