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EU ELECTIONS

Falling turnout at European elections: the reasons

Voter turnout at European Parliament elections has dropped steadily over the years, hitting a record low of 43 percent at the last poll in 2014. Ahead of the May 23-26 elections for the European Union's assembly, here is an overview.

Falling turnout at European elections: the reasons
Photos: AFP

Staying away 

In 1979, at the first direct election for representatives to the European Parliament, just 38 percent of voters stayed away from the polls.

Since then voter turnout for the five-yearly election has progressively fallen, with a record 57 percent of voters abstaining in 2014.

At the same time, however, the powers of the parliament have increased.

Having had limited scope in 1979, Euro-MPs can now co-legislate in some areas alongside national ministers in the EU Council.

EU distant 

In almost all EU countries more people vote at national general polls than for the European Parliament.

The gap is on average 25 percentage points across the bloc, Sciences Po university professor Olivier Rozenberg told AFP.

EU citizens feel “less close” to the European elections than polls at their national and local levels, the Jacques Delors Institute think-tank said in a 2014 report.

In a September 2018 survey 48 percent of Europeans said they “believe that their voice counts in the EU”, according to the Eurobarometer polling body.

This rose to 62 percent for their own countries, its survey found.

Compulsory vote scrapped 

In 1979 voting was compulsory in three countries — Belgium, Italy and Luxembourg — of the nine that made up the precursor to the European Union, the European Economic Community.

The three accounted for a quarter of the bloc's voters.

That proportion dropped to about five percent as new members joined and Italy dropped the obligation to vote in the 1990s, which “probably played a major role in the decline in overall voting rates at the European elections,” the Jacques Delors Institute said.

In the forthcoming elections, voting will be compulsory in five countries: Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg.

This is not a guarantee of turnout however, as many voters choose to break the law and not cast ballots.

While abstention is weak in Belgium and Luxembourg at between 10 and 15 percent, in Greece it was 40 percent at the 2014 poll, and 56 percent in Cyprus.

Record abstention in east

Slovakia posted the highest abstention rate of 87 percent at the 2014 poll.

Ten of the 12 countries with the lowest turnouts were from the former communist bloc in the east, young countries that are the most recent to join the EU.

Voting in these nations is “a little less sacred” than in other European countries, Rozenberg said.

“For us (western countries) voting is synonymous with democracy, while this link is less clear in Eastern countries where there are still memories of non-pluralist elections,” he said.

Politics in eastern countries is also more fluid, with parties regularly changing names and alliances.

“That does not favour partisan identity and therefore the vote,” Rozenberg said.

Founding countries not spared 

With the exception of Belgium and Luxembourg, the EU's founding members have also seen higher numbers of voters snubbing the European Parliament polls.

In France and The Netherlands, abstention reached around 60 percent in 2014, from 40 percent in 1979.

In Italy it was at 43 percent from 14 percent over the same period, and in

Germany it was at 50 percent from 34 percent.

The stayaway rates have nonetheless stabilised since 2004 in France and Germany.

This can be explained by an awareness among people “that the European Union is part of the problem and perhaps of the solution” of the various challenges facing Europe, Rozenberg said. 

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EU ELECTIONS

Italy’s League come out on top in EU election, exit polls show

The populist League party of Interior Minister Matteo Salvini won the most votes in Sunday's European elections with 27-31 percent, according to exit polls.

Italy's League come out on top in EU election, exit polls show
Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini arrives to cast his ballot at a polling station in Milan on May 26, 2019, as he votes in European parliamentary elections. Photo: AFP

Its coalition partner the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) was beaten by the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) which came second with 21-25 percent, exit polls showed after voting ended at 2100 GMT.

Luigi Di Maio's M5S garnered between 18.5-22.5 percent of votes, while tycoon and former premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia scored 8-12 percent.

“The League has probably become the top party in Italy,” the head of the party's Senate grouping Riccardo Molinari said after the exit polls were released.

The result for the anti-migrant League was not as high as some had predicted but appeared to confirm the party's stellar rise since forming a government in June last year.

Some analysts predicted that Salvini would want to call snap elections if the League obtained a high score, although he has denied this during campaigning.

“As far as I'm concerned, if the League wins nothing changes in Italy, everything will change in Europe, starting from tomorrow,” Salvini said on Sunday before exit polls were released.

The March 2018 general election in the eurozone's third largest economy saw the League take home just 17 percent of the vote, while the M5S — which set itself up as the honest, environmentally-friendly alternative to a corrupt old political guard — pocketed over 32 percent.

Analysts said that a strong League result — over 30 percent — could see Salvini tempted to ditch the M5S for the far-right Brothers of Italy (which won 5-7 percent on Sunday), or a fresh alliance with the party's historic  partner, billionaire Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia.

In France far-right leader Marine Le Pen won her symbolic duel with President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, as eurosceptic forces made strong gains in the EU parliamentary election.

Turnout EU-wide was estimated at 51 percent, the highest in 20 years, suggesting more than 200 million citizens across the 28-nation bloc voted in a poll billed as a battle between populists and pro-European forces.

Mainstream parties put up enough of a defence to keep a possible majority in the 751-seat assembly — and Green parties surged in western Europe — but Le Pen's victory in her head-to-head with Macron set the tone of the night.

Across Europe however, according to a projection prepared by the parliament, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) is on course to have the most seats in the assembly with 173, down sharply from 216 in 2014.

With the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) projected to win 147, down from 185, the two mainstream parties will no longer have a majority and will have to reach out to liberals to maintain a “cordon sanitaire” and exclude the far-right from decision making. 

Each previous EU election since the first in 1979 has seen turnout fall, but initial figures from across the 28-nation bloc suggested this year's culture clash has mobilised both populists and those who oppose them.

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