After the 4-day-long European elections marathon that took place in 28 EU Member States between 22-25 May, journalists, political analysts, civil society organisations and ordinary citizens made judgements on the outcomes of this election as well as projecting the potential composition of the Parliament and divining the next president of the European Commission. However, further I will analyse and try to raise discussion about another important election-related aspect that greatly worries me but has not yet received enough public attention. Presumably, few could guess that this article will revolve around the voter turnout.
The first reactions on this matter suggest that the turnout of 43.09% (according to the earlier estimation - 43.11%) has been regarded as an achievement for European democracy and civic participation in the EU as “the long trend of falling participation in the vote has been reversed” (Figure 1). Notwithstanding, whether this 0.09% increase against the 2009 European elections turnout is really a success-story for the EU can be confronted.
Firstly, let us look at the participation rate in the recent elections by country. Figure 2 suggests that half of the EU Member States have managed to exceed the EU average turnout. In four countries voting is compulsory, hence it is not a surprise that in Belgium and Luxembourg the turnout reaches 90%. However, given these conditions and legal requirements, only 3/5 of Greek citizens bothered about voting in elections, but Cypriots have barely managed to surpass 43.09%. In turn, comparatively good results are demonstrated by Malta, Italy, Denmark, Ireland – countries where the majority, i.e., more than 50% of eligible voters, cast their votes. It should be noted that Maltese and Italian citizens are generally more interested in political life and they value engagement in democratic processes to a larger extent than their co-citizens in other EU countries do.
BUT, in the next figure (Figure 3) we can see that in all four aforementioned Member States the voter turnout has actually fallen in comparison with the previous 2009 European elections. This could imply that the EU has failed to close the democratic gap between the Union and its citizens; on the contrary - feeling of attachment and democratic duty towards the EU gradually weakens.
Overall, the EU average turnout has grown by only 0.09% compared to the 2009 elections (2013 in Croatia due to its recent accession). Moreover, in only 10 EU Member States there has been a rise in participation rate, in all the rest - smaller or larger drops can be observed. The largest increase in turnout happened in Lithuania. We can celebrate this eminent rise of 24%, if only… European elections were held on the very same day as Presidential elections, which, of course, attracted more attention and civic interest. This is a strong argument that illustrates the high turnout of Lithuanian citizens in the EP elections, since participation in Presidential elections that concern life on the national level motivated more people to simultaneously cast a vote for candidate MEPs. As a result, Lithuania only slightly exceeded the EU average threshold. Similar situations occurred in the countries that follow Lithuania in the ranking depicted in the Figure 3, namely, EP elections in Greece and Germany coincided with local elections.
Analysing Figure 3 from the other side – a dramatic contraction describes recent turnout in Latvia. One can speculate that factors such as limited flexibility, i.e. being registered at the particular polling station, and too good weather for bothering to exercise one’s democratic right determined this result. Undeniably the drop would be smaller if again - not the local elections that were held back in 2009 together with the European elections, thus creating a high reference level of 54%.
Estonia – the star of ICT – maybe can be proud of its easy and accessible to everyone e-voting system that was launched 10 years ago (but which has recently been criticised for being unsecure, hence experts advised not to use it in the European elections), but it does not shine with respect to the voter turnout in recent elections. Unappealing outcome – below the EU average, losing 7% of the votes when compared to the 2009 elections turnout.
Let us also briefly discuss the turnout in Austria – the only EU Member State where the minimum age to vote is 16 since 2007. Several NGOs claim that allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote motivates them to exercise this right, and hence – raise overall participation rate. Although the data for particular age groups is not yet available, what we can see now is that turnout in Austria has fallen by 0.3%. What was the contribution of different age groups to this result is yet to be answered, and many wait for this data with a certain anxiety. This information will help to deduce both – youth-interest in (EU) politics and voting in particular, and youth attitude towards the EU politics.
Other countries lost certain number of votes for institutional and bureaucratic obstacles. For instance, many EU citizens in the UK were barred from the voting right “by confused polling station staff and incomprehensible bureaucratic requirements.” Also, Latvian citizens abroad have complained about too complex and time-consuming procedure for postal voting. Similarly, many EU citizens living in Denmark were denied a vote due to “missing ballots, being rejected at polling stations…” and other failures that deserve a harsh criticism. These are just a few examples, and I am certain that you may have heard about, or have been in (hopefully not), similar situations. These are indeed sad and worrisome precedents, especially taking into account the effort that has been made by the organisation “European Citizens Abroad LLC” to promote EU expats’ voting rights as well as to encourage and give them information about the voting procedure.
We may speculate whether the rising euroscepticism, surge of far-right and Neonazi parties have influenced the direction of the level of turnout. Obviously, it is not easy to infer how this phenomenon in European politics has contributed to the participation rate in the elections, and presumably it depends from country to country. Disaggregated data is needed to draw concrete conclusions on this matter. But let us see just one example – France where the eurosceptic Front National is celebrating victory and thus has shocked the country. There, the turnout has slightly improved and accordingly it may be true that those additional votes went exactly to Marine Le Pen. However, this is not the case in every Member State where extremist parties have succeeded.
Actually, the EU itself has tried to reverse the downward sloping trend of turnout by suggesting parties link their pre-election campaigns with nomination of candidates for the European Commission President. By doing so, the Commission hoped “to better inform voters about the issues at stake in  European Parliament elections, encourage a Europe-wide debate and ultimately improve voter turnout.” I do not want to be pessimistic, but given the election results I have to admit that this innovation has barely affected voter turnout, and therefore this time it was not different as the EU has been advertising in the run up to the elections. Instead, citizens across the EU have most likely expressed their disillusionment with EU politics and politicians by the vote of abstention. But the 0.09% that were discussed above have appeared thanks to good turnout in the Member States where participation in elections is either compulsory, or it has been high historically at all levels (even though turnout is already falling also in those countries).