international analysis and commentary

Voter abstention in European parliamentary elections: trends and reasons

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European Union citizens will cast their vote to elect their representatives in the next European Parliament for the eighth time since 1979. Recent figures show that public support for a stronger and more cohesive European identity has increased, and the latest Eurobarometer findings demonstrate how much Europe has become a political issue for national politicians. For example, more than half of Europeans (62%) consider themselves European citizens. Moreover, 70% of Europeans are in favor of a system to directly elect the European Commission president – unlike the current consensus among the member states to be ratified by the Parliament.

The first elections in 1979 were considered an important step towards a more integrated Europe and took place the same year that the European Monetary System was established. But there has been a constant decrease in the turnout rate during the last thirty years. The number has gone down from 63% of citizens of the then European Community who cast their vote in 1979, to only 43% in the latest EU elections of 2009. In the most populated founding member states such as Italy, Germany (then BRD) and France participation has decreased enormously. In France, for example, only 24 million people voted in the 2009 EU elections while this figure doubled in the 2012 presidential election, with nearly 48 million people going to the polls.

The sharp decrease of turnout has a long range of causes behind it. As a caveat, it should be noted that turnout rates vary greatly throughout Europe, being high only in countries with compulsory voting such as Belgium (91% in 2009), or in special cases such as Italy in which the EU has long been viewed as a sort of additional source of political legitimacy for the national élites – as well as a virtuous external constraint (65% in 2009). Many member states also experience a sharp difference in abstention rates between national and European elections. This is due to a variety of factors, including the relative importance of local/international issues at any given time and the correspondence of the European party cleavage to the national political spectrum. Nevertheless, other factors are likely to have a more uniform impact.

Firstly, European elections have almost always been considered “second-order national elections” by political élites, analysts and public opinion. The most direct implication is that European Parliamentary elections and campaigns tend to converge on national issues, usually overlooking truly European ones such as institutional architecture reforms or specific policy-related choices. The abolition of dual mandate for elected MEPs, for example, epitomizes this phenomenon especially in the United Kingdom – a country where European election turnout has constantly been around half of that of national elections (34.7% in the 2009 EU elections against 65% in the 2010 national elections).

Secondly, symptoms of high abstention rates can be political apathy or skepticism towards Europe. Especially among younger generations, Europe has been historically “taken for granted”. This has led to a steady decrease in people’s confidence and trust towards electoral competitions as a means to obtain tangible results. According to the electoral theory put forth by Eric Plutzer, three successive national electoral competitions are required for young voters to get acquainted with this civic experience and therefore to reach a  level of political awareness which allows personal involvement – even if the issue at stake is “not in their backyard”.

Thirdly and finally, an important factor related to the decline in turnout is the lack of information citizens have regarding their political options. Political choices are the result of the information voters receive before heading to the polls: if MEPs and parties are not able to stimulate a lively debate or create the conditions in which voters can form an articulated opinion, the turnout will probably be low. This results in high abstention rates in traditionally pro-European countries such as Germany (43.3% in 2009), where the debate polarized mainly on domestic and identity issues rather than on policy- or value-related topics regarding the EU.

The growth of such causes for decreased turnout rates is related to tendencies that all modern democratic polities are experiencing. The central factor seems to be the growing disconnection between political élites and citizens (which is currently benefiting also anti-system parties). In the European Union, these factors are amplified and exacerbated by the distance between rulers and ruled – given the complex and sometimes arcane structure of the Union – and by the information gap experienced by citizens even if they proactively want to take part in European political life.

It should also be noted that, historically, the rise of populist parties and euroskepticism is proportionally related to lower levels of turnout; traditional parties tend to suffer directly from the “protest vote” in EU elections. In addition, issue-based parties such as the Swedish Pirate Party or the Danish People’s Movement Against the EU have gained a political representation within the 2009 European Parliament at the expense of other national parties, testifying to the relevance of new and rhetorically aggressive political elements entering the political scene.

Moreover, proportional electoral systems are widespread across Europe in European Parliamentary elections and help small or non-ideological parties overcome the burden of election thresholds. There is a delicate trade-off at work here: while the democratic “ideal” benefits much from the widest possible representation of voters, at the same time a proportional electoral system makes it easier for protest parties to enter the political scene. By joining a common political group within the European Parliament, these parties and movements may have the power to shape the course of many policies and debates within the Parliament.

Against this backdrop, raising awareness on the importance of voting for the European Parliamentary elections has become a stated objective of many policy makers. This has led to the establishment of communication campaigns tailored to specific publics, aimed at increasing participation among voters. Taking advantage of well-established practices to “get out the vote” in modern democracies, some techniques can be valuable also at the European level.

A good communication strategy combined with savvy commitments is now clearly a priority for candidates, as incumbent MEPs or candidates who appear strong at the national level should not take election (or re-election) for granted: with lower turnout rates, especially older parties and status quo politicians are likely to suffer from the protest vote or from voter apathy.

Last but not least, at the national level an increased politicization of European campaigns could have a twofold effect: on the one side, it would tackle the euroskeptic cliché according to which the EU is irrelevant. One the other side, it would create opportunities to fight abstention rates with distinct national approaches. The 2014 election campaign has been largely focused on the legitimacy of the euro and its governance, the credibility of austerity measures, the repercussions of the sovereign debt crisis and the fragmentation of the European economic space. This is a much tougher challenge than in past elections: like it or not, European politicians of all stripes and their potential supporters are taking the EU more seriously.