Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For East Europeans, E.U. Election Was a Big Yawn


BERLIN — From Lithuania in the north to Romania in the south, East Europeans ignored the European Parliament elections in even greater numbers than voters in the West.

The average turnout for the 10 former Communist countries was just over 31 percent, compared with an overall average of 43.1 percent for the 27-nation European Union. The turnout in Eastern Europe was uneven. More than 52 percent voted in Latvia because, analysts said, the parliamentary election coincided with local government elections; only 20 percent voted in Lithuania.

With many countries hit hard by the global financial crisis, voters had a galvanizing issue around which they could rally. But the dismal turnout suggested that voters were either apathetic or skeptical that their national and international political institutions could do anything meaningful to solve their problems.

The low turnout also helped radical parties get elected to the European Parliament. Hungary’s extremist Jobbik party won 14 percent of the vote, which will give it three seats. In Slovakia, the far-right Slovak National Party won a seat for the first time. In Romania, the extreme rightist P.R.M. won two seats and in neighboring Bulgaria, the anti-E.U. nationalist Ataka party won 11 percent of the vote.

The low turnout across the region benefited the radical parties, but their success was far less than what was expected.

Although voters stayed away from the polls in large numbers all across Europe, the trend was perhaps more surprising in the East, where the hunger to participate in democracy could be expected to be higher after four decades under Communist rule, when people could not vote in free elections at all.

Some analysts blamed the remoteness of the European Parliament and many people’s sense that it has no real impact on their lives.

“The Parliament seems too abstract or is perceived by the public as a resting place for former politicians or those who have to be rewarded in some way,” said Agata Urbanska of the Stefan Batory Foundation, a public policy institute in Warsaw.

Only a quarter of eligible voters cast ballots in Poland, whose center-right Civic Platform government has become increasingly pro-European over the past two years — especially compared with the previous euroskeptic government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Other analysts said voters had no idea why they needed to participate in the elections.

Information about the elections was poor, many campaigns were badly run and lackluster, and the issues were much more focused on domestic themes and endless sparring among the political parties, analysts said.

There was also little or no effort to explain what the European Parliament does or how it affects people’s lives (like its decision to reduce fees for roaming cellphone calls this summer).

“The voters have little information about the relevance of the European Parliament,” said Andris Spruds, acting director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.

The situation in Latvia was a bit different, but mainly because of timing.

The turnout was high because local government elections were held the same day.

“That way you save money by holding different elections at the same time and people vote,” Mr. Spruds said.

Turnout was very low almost everywhere else — only 19.64 percent in Slovakia, 28 percent in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, and just over 36 percent in Hungary.

In Bulgaria and Romania, analysts said, turnout was affected by general voter disillusionment with their governments, which the E.U. has berated for corruption, crime and weak judicial institutions. Turnout was 27.4 percent in Romania and 37.5 percent in Bulgaria.

Analysts were quick to point out that the low vote total did not reflect a significant turn against the idea of the European Union.

Along with NATO, the union is an organization countries across Eastern Europe aspired to join once they broke free from Moscow in 1990.

In a E.U. Eurobarometer poll, 65 percent of Poles said that membership in the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, was a good thing. The lowest support for E.U membership came from Hungary, with 31 percent, and Latvia, at 27 percent.


Anonymous said...

Judy, your negative overview of EU elections made me "YAWN".

You spoke volumes in behalf of the left leaning media by not emphasizing that the EU members do not wish to continue supporting left leaning ideals and socialism.

Yes, I agree that voting turnout has been dropping over the years but don't think for a moment that their dropping their vigil.

Magdalena said...

Thank you for the comprehensive analysis of the elections in terms of the participation (or lack thereof) of Eastern European countries.

I wonder whether the result really don't reflect a turn against the idea of the European Union. But then again, how can you prompt the populations of former Communist states to vote when they won't even cast their votes locally?

Anonymous said...

Magadaline, be more specific.
Which former communist countries are you talking about.

Voting apathy is more predominent in Russia and CIS countries.

Don't know which country you live in
but please do some homework before making general statements.