Five myths on low voter turnout at European elections in post-communist countries

Posted on 10. July 2015

by Veronika Sobolova

veronika-sobolova-modifieedThe voter turnout for the European Parliament elections have been decreasing steadily since the very first EP elections in 1979. This trend persists in spite of the large transfer of competencies to the European Parliament, which gave it a more significant position within the complex system of inter-institutional relations. During this time, the EU itself also gained a lot of competencies from the national level, which leads us to pose a rhetorical question: is the declining turnout European citizens’ answer to the EU enlargement and deeper integration? The turnout was especially low in the new EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, which share a post-communist legacy1. In the most recent elections in 2014, the eight EU member states with the lowest turnout were from the former Communist bloc, with the lowest turnout recorded in Slovenia (24.55 %), Czech Republic (18.20 %) and Slovakia (13.05 %) as shown in Figure No.1. This blog will examine why there was such a difference in voters’ turnout in EP elections between the post-communist and the Western EU member states (see Figure No. 2).

No.1 EP 2014 general resultsno.2 all EU elections decline

1. Are citizens of post-communist countries Eurosceptic?

Euroscepticism, defined as a sceptic opposition towards the European Union and its policies2, does not apply to post-communist countries, at least not according to Eurobarometer results. In total, 44 per cent of post-communist countries’ citizens have a positive attitude towards the EU, in comparison to an average of 37 per cent in other EU member states (see Figure No. 3). Moreover, the majority of Eurosceptic MEPs are also from Western Europe (e.g. The Netherlands, France and Great Britain). Therefore the assumption that there is a correlation between the way the EU is perceived and the voters’ turnout in post-communist countries has not been confirmed.

No.3 EU attitude2. Are citizens of post-communist countries interested in the EU elections?

Disinterest and disinformation are typical arguments cited in the media as being responsible for the low voter turnout. It stems from the assumption that the EU citizens consider the EP elections as “elections of second-order” and therefore as less important to them3. This would mean then that the elections turnout in national elections is much higher than in the European ones. However, this is not true, as just a brief look at the voter turnout at national elections in post-communist countries shows that it is also lower in comparison to Western European countries. Consequently, as the turnout at national level elections is lower than in Western Europe, it cannot be expected that in EP elections it will be as high as in the other EU member states.

3. Are citizens of post-communist countries satisfied with the EU?

In the autumn Eurobarometer 2014, 50 per cent of respondents in post-communist countries stated that they are very or fairly satisfied with the way the democracy works in the EU, while on average just 44 per cent of citizens in all other EU member states express the same opinion. Interestingly, the citizens of post-communist countries are much more satisfied with the way democracy works at the EU level than at the national ones, which is contradictory to the Eurobarometer results in Western EU member states countries.

Thus, the assumption that the citizens of post-communist countries do not cast the ballot in EP election because they are not satisfied with the way democracy in the EU works has not been confirmed either.

4. Are the citizens in post-communist countries used to casting a ballot?

One could say that a certain ‘habit of voting’ exists in established democracies, at the national level4. This habit is especially entrenched in the countries with compulsory voting systems (such as Belgium and Luxemburg), but also in other Western countries, which has an obvious influence on voter turnout at the European Parliament elections. By contrast, the electorate in post-communist countries has not yet had enough time to get the voting habits entrenched in the national socio-political fabric, which might explain why such a low number of citizens in Eastern European countries voted5. The eight post-communist countries from the 2004 enlargement have the longest ‘history’ of voting in EP elections, which includes just three election round. That is why it is possible to conclude that the EU citizens from post-communist countries still need to develop the habit of voting in EP elections, in order to increase the overall voter turnout.

5. Is there any identification with political partiers in post-communist countries?

Theoreticians explaining the low voter turnout at EP elections assume that the voters perceive the EP elections as less important than the national ones. Therefore, the voters will be less interested in the topics and the MEPs themselves, and when it comes to elections, they will decide under the influence of other incentives, such as ties with certain political parties, or the current economic and political atmosphere in a country etc.6

An in-depth research showed that party-identification is the strongest predictor of election voter turnout, with surprisingly higher numbers in eastern EU member state than in western ones7. However, an affiliation to a political party develops over the course of years and it takes a lot of time to engage with an active group in politics. Yet, the majority of political parties in post-communist countries has a rather short history8 and there are just a few ones that are older than 20 years. .

The turnout at the 2014 EP elections in post-communist countries was so low because the citizens in countries with communist heritage lack strong political party identification.

CONCLUSION

To sum up, the phenomenon of declining voter turnout for the EP elections can be observed since the very first elections in 1979. However, as this blog argued, it is worth it to take a closer look at different groups of states in order to explain the reasons for this decline, which differ significantly.

Despite the differential argumentation in the media, the citizens of post-communist EU member states are not Eurosceptic, are interested in the EU and they are even more satisfied with the way the democracy at the EU level works, than the western EU member states. However, in comparison to the democracies in Western Europe, they lack the experience also in voting at the national level and they have not yet developed long-lasting links with national political parties, which would motivate them to participate in the EP elections.

Despite the plausible scientific explanation of lower voter turnout in post-communist countries, we cannot forget that democracy is based on active citizens engaging themselves not just during the elections, but beyond as well. The EU desperately needs active European citizens, not only to increase the voter turnout but also for our common European future.

Source of graphs: Eurobarometer results, author’s adaptation

Footnotes

1. Post-communist EU member states from 2004 entlargement are Estonia (EE), Latvia (LV), Lithuania (LT), Slovakia (SK), Hungary (HU), Poland (PL), Czech Republic (CZ), Slovenia (SLO); and from 2007 enlargement Bulgaria (BG) and Romania (RO) and the newest EU member state since 2013 Croatia (HR)
2. European Source Online. 2014. Information Guide Euroscepticism.
3. Reif, K., & Schmitt, H. (1980). Nine second-order national elections: A conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results. European journal of political research, 8(1), 3-44.
4. Franklin, Mark N. “The dynamics of electoral participation.” Comparing democracies 2 (2002): 148-168.
5. Wessels, Bernhard, and Mark N. Franklin. “Turning out or turning off: do mobilization and attitudes account for turnout differences between new and established member states at the 2004 EP elections?.” European Integration 31.5 (2009): 609-626.
6. Reif, K., & Schmitt, H. (1980). Nine second-order national elections: A conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results. European journal of political research, 8(1), 3-44.
7. Schmitt, H. (2005). The European Parliament Elections of June 2004: Still Second-Order?. West European Politics, 28(3), 650-679.
8. Franklin, M.N. (2014). Why vote at an election with no apparent purpose: Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies [Online]