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Europe

Reaching a Disinterested Electorate

Fewer than half of voters in the EU actually cast ballots in European elections. The results could be even worse this year.

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People won't likely be voting in droves for the European Parliament

Only one-third of registered voters in the EU say they will definitely vote in European Parliament (EP) elections from June 10-13, a European Commission poll has discovered. Even adding in those who say they will "probably" vote, only about half of voters in the fifteen "old" EU countries will likely bother to go to the polling booth. Among the ten new members, whose electorates one might think would still be flush with EU enthusiasm so close after joining the club, just 44 percent are expected to mark ballots.

EP elections have never summoned anywhere close to the enthusiasm or interest that local or national polls evoke, although the EU-aware will say that boredom is misplaced. Most voters just haven't caught on to the fact that more than 60 percent of all national legislation is decided in Brussels, the majority of which must first be approved by the parliament. It's particularly frustrating for EP candidates.

"I'm disappointed that in ten years I've been unable to get across this enthusiasm for Europe that I have," Karin Jöns, a German member of the EP (MEP) from Bremen, said.

Jöns has tried. She holds regular office hours in Bremen for people to come talk to her. Some of her colleagues try to reach the people they represent through frequent mailings and getting as much media exposure as they can.

National issues prevail

In Germany, where 99 MEPs represent 80 million people, the candidates have difficulty reaching their audiences -- unless they get television coverage. But that's the exception rather than the rule. Besides the tiny number whose names actually do ring a bell with their countrymen and women, MEPs are nearly always overshadowed by national lawmakers.

The limelight may have shifted as elections loom, but the regional focus hasn't. Of all the parties fielding candidates, only the Greens have a pan-European campaign platform. Though communist and socialist parties founded their own EU-wide organization in May, the fledgling Party of the European Left hasn't been campaigning.

Instead of propagating European matters, the campaigns focus on local and national issues. Germany's Social Democrats and Greens fear voters will use the election to vent their frustration over the unpopular healthcare, welfare and social security reforms the governing coalition has introduced. Indeed, the Christian Democratic Union has taken that tack in its campaign, lambasting the governing parties and calling for change.

It worked in the last EP election, in 1999, when almost 50 percent of voters chose the CDU and it Bavarian sister party CSU. But the Social Democrats still won the next national parliamentary elections in 2002.

The 1999 EP results, however, could hardly be considered representative since only 45.2 percent of the German electorate cast a ballot -- around 4 percent less than the EU average -- compared to 79.1 percent turnout in 2002 national elections.

This time around too, the question is whether voters can even be bothered to go to the polls.

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