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Voter apathy

May 25, 2009

The latest poll into who will vote in the upcoming European parliamentary elections on June 4-7 makes for some pretty grim reading. It seems that voter apathy is growing as knowledge and interest in the EU shrink.

The EU Parliament building in Brussels
European parliamentary elections are a pretty dull affair

A study carried out across the EU on behalf of the French Political Innovation Foundation shows that 18 percent of those surveyed said they were ' not at all interested' in the June poll, whilst 35 percent said they were 'rather not interested'. The same number said they were 'rather interested' but only a meager 11 percent said they were 'very interested'.

The data coming in on voter apathy across the European Union is turning unspoken but common knowledge into hard facts: the EU elections hold no interest for a huge number of the bloc's citizens.

What is less clear are the reasons why. Attempts have been made to connect the expected dramatically low turn-out with frustration over the incompetence of ministers, the mounting corruption scandals and the perceived idleness that voters associate with the overblown bureaucracy many believe the EU has become.

But to equate the apparent refusal of so many Europeans to head to the polls with an act of protest assumes that many people actually know or care what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg. Election experts believe it's a lot simpler than that.

"The European parliament is very important and the people who work there have an important role, but no-one has bothered to explain this to the voters," Professor Mark Franklin, chair of the European Election Studies steering group, told Deutsche Welle. "It's not clear what the European parliament does, it's certainly not clear as to what difference it makes and it regularly throws up electoral lists full of unrecognizable names and faces. It all adds up to the opinion that there's no point to any of it."

Boring election with no pay-off

Dr. Hermann Schmitt, project director at the Mannheim Center for European Social Research, told Deutsche Welle that he thought the lack of a tangible end product was turning voters off.

"We know that people are disinterested, even to the degree that they don’t even know what's going on," he said. "The main reason for this is that the European elections are seen to be quite unimportant. This is because, in the European parliament election, the thing that characterizes a normal election is not going to happen – that is, a government is not going to be formed.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi
EU leaders are not immune from election lethargyImage: AP

"It's not that people are staying away from these elections because they are critical of the European Union and its political process; it's just that these elections are so boring and one doesn't know why one should participate because not much is going to happen as a result of it," he added.

European parliamentary election turnout has fallen steadily from 66 percent in 1979 to just over 45 percent in 2004, and in most member states is amongst the lowest for any form of poll.

Professor Franklin is not surprised at all by the predicted voting figures. He is, if anything, surprised that so many are saying that they intend to take part in this election.

"The most amazing thing is that anyone votes at all," he said. "Why would anyone vote in an election where they have no idea what's at stake, what the issues are and what, if any, difference the election will have on their lives? That’s the case with all European elections."

Three voting groups make up the numbers

Franklin believes that those who will vote will come from three groups which can always be relied upon to take part in elections. These groups vote out of loyalty, habit or just because they want a change of pace.

Party logo of the European Greens
The Greens traditionally benefit from expressive votes

"We have the party loyalists who react to calls from their leaders to vote and save their party humiliation; then there are those who vote out of habit, who generally believe that voting is a good thing and that they should exercise that right to vote, and then there are the expressive voters who tend to vote for parties, such as the Greens, for whom they wouldn't normally vote in national elections," he said.

"These expressive votes usually come about because the voters know that it doesn’t matter who they vote for, because they think it won't matter anyway, it just gives them a chance to support someone different."

While Eurocrats may be worried about keeping their jobs, a more serious concern is that the expected low turn-out could have unpleasant consequences for the make-up of the future parliament and the political spectrum in Europe.

Lower turn-out plays into extremist hands

The lower the turnout, the easier it will be for more radical parties to do well. As in the 1930s, rising extremism is seen as a key potential risk from the financial crisis and resulting rise in unemployment and hardship.

That could potentially see a rise both for far-left parties and right-wingers, including those angry at rising immigration.

Far-right British National Party candidate Sharon Eubanks, center, and supporters
Britain's extremist BNP could benefit from voter apathyImage: AP

Anti-foreigner rhetoric, and in some cases violence, have increased in several countries in recent months. Analysts are watching the potential rise of the far-right in Hungary and the nationalist British National Party (BNP), amongst others.

"A low turn-out would certainly have implications in terms of niche or radical fringe parties," Professor Franklin said. "This is where the expressive voters come in. They may make a choice to vote for a far-right or far-left party because of the reasons I gave before, that they believe that it won't make a difference. They wouldn’t do this in national elections because it may have an impact, but in Europe – who cares?

"What could happen, though, is that these extremist parties, for example an anti-EU party, may take seats away from others and then make the passing of legislation almost impossible, freezing the political process," he added.

Franklin also believes that politics on a national level may suffer across Europe as a result.

EU elections could color the national voting experience

"This European election experience may be the first time that around 50 percent of voters in the EU vote for the first time," he said. "If this is their first experience of an electoral vote, imagine what that can do to their opinion of the democratic process! The next time there's a national vote, the domestic parties may say, 'those EU elections weren't that important but these ones are' – but by then an opinion is already starting to form that all elections are pointless, especially among young voters. This is one of the reasons why national turn-outs are also on the wane across Europe."

European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso
A campaign fight involving Barroso might excite votersImage: Picture-Alliance /dpa

Both Franklin and Schmitt say that a change in the process where electable figureheads are campaigning for office – be it the president of the commission or a future European president – could help encourage people to vote in European elections.

"If the parliament would elect the president of the commission and two or three competing candidates would run in these elections, things would be different and turn-out would increase," Schmitt said. "Elections are about horse races, elections are about who is going to govern, elections are about people and faces and whether you like them or you don't."

A real race - but who would want to run?

"To make the European elections more attractive, the process could include a number of presidential candidates who are running against each other," Franklin said. "Then there will be other politicians who will stand and say 'I support such and such because of this and that'. We might then get a debate about what these people intend to do. It will be a real election with electable faces and personalities."

However, Franklin believes that turning European elections into a sexy presidential race will probably not happen any time soon.

"Someone once said that electing a European president would relegate people, like the president of France, into a role no more important than the governor of Texas," he said. "Real elections for a European president would make national leaders even less relevant, and which politician would want that?"

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Susan Houlton