EU: Turnout, Turnoff

The June Parliamentary elections exposed apathy among voters and an electorate focused on punishing their national parties

On Jun. 7, 27 European countries voted to elect their representatives in the European Parliament. It was a vote that, among other things, showed a growing apathy and dissatisfaction on the part of the European population. The low turnout at the polling station proved once again people’s disappointment with their local governments – disappointment that turned into a worrying lack of interest.

Center right parties did generally well, capitalizing on their reputation for being business savvy in the midst of a Europe-wide economic downturn. But those who did vote rewarded those most critical of the Union.

In Austria, a Euro-skeptic party made surprisingly big gains. Headed by Hans-Peter Martin (HPM Liste), a member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 1999, won 17.9% of the vote, which was 3.9 points more than in the last EU election in 2004, according to figures announced by the Austria Press Agency.

The conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) lost three per cent, with 29.7% of a 42.42% turnout.

Losing the most in the election results were the Social Democrats (SPÖ). Led by Chancellor Werner Faymann, the party is the senior partner in the governing coalition with the ÖVP and lost 9.5%, falling to 23.85%. They lost two seats in the European parliament as a result.

It was the SPÖ’s worst result in a nationwide election since the end of World War II and reflected a common trend in these elections. Idealism and social responsibility, the main planks of Europe’s leftist parties, are not sought after when economic times are rough and voters become self-protective.

Last September, the SPÖ won a mere 29.3% in Austria’s parliamentary elections, but this historic low was overshadowed by their victory against their rivals, the ÖVP.

The far-right, which is known for its EU-bashing, also did better than in the previous EU Elections, even though it had less support than expected.

The Freedom Party (FPÖ) received 13.1%, up 6.8 points from five years ago, while the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) – led by Jörg Haider until his death last year, and was participating for the first time in European elections, took 4.7%.

Formally, the vote for the EU Parliament is meant to transcend national borders and issues, and take stances on issues affecting all of Europe. Reality seems different, however. In country after country, the electorate voted based on national concerns and along lines reflecting the popularity of particular domestic parties or candidates. The result was thus a reflection of a poor exercise in pan-European democracy.

“I voted for the ÖVP to support them and to strengthen their position,” a 27-year-old female office worker said as she emerged from a polling station in Vienna’s 13th District. “Not especially for the European Community, but more for Austria,” she admitted. “My vote is saying the ÖVP is the best choice for Austria.”

Turnout in Austria remained unchanged from 2004, at 42.4%, with over 6.3 million voters, aged 16 and over, going to the polls.

Voter dissatisfaction was reflected by strong turnout of fringe groups – like the Euro-skeptics in Austria and the far-right parties, who are notorious for their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments. Beyond showing disinterest in EU issues, voters also punished governing political parties to varying degrees for the economic downturn.

Austria, however, is only one piece of the European puzzle; voters in Britain, Bulgaria, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain followed the Austrian pattern.

As a result the biggest losers were the mainstream leftist European parties such as the SPÖ. With their supporters staying at home and the fringe parties successfully mobilizing their voters, the message seemed clear: desperate times see voters lean towards populist groups that capitalize on an economic downturn and exploit an innate fear of foreigners.

Also apparent in these elections was an outward lack of passion – both in the pre-election campaigns and among the voters. The overall turnout for the Old Continent dropped from 45.5% in 2004 to 43%.

An overview of the situation in Europe: Gordon Brown, UK prime minister, suffered perhaps the most humiliating result for an incumbent, seeing his Labour Party slump to just 16% of the vote, and came third behind the opposition Conservatives and the Euro-skeptic Independence Party, whose main aim is to withdraw the UK from the Union.

It was a good day for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who saw his ruling party, the UMP, poll nearly 28%, compared with 16.5% for the Socialists, which performed only slightly better than the Greens.

In Germany, Christian Democrats (CDU) took the lead. If the European Elections can be seen as a test run for Germany’s national poll in September, Chancellor Angela Merkel of the CDU is within a whisker of gaining a majority in coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP)  – but still short of the 50% cent target.

It was a disappointing election for socialists across the board; Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) managed only 21% against 38% for CDU, with whom they share power in a grand coalition.

The results, however, mean that if all center-right parties unite – including the UK’s Conservatives who are planning to launch a new “anti-federalist” group – they might have a majority.  But in political reality, parties seldom succeed in forging such an alliance.

No matter what parliamentary constellations are ultimately formed, however, the biggest loser may be the electorate. European laws overwhelmingly bind individual countries internally.

And a parliament that is elected on national interests instead of on the recognition that Brussels and Strasbourg increasingly rule the lives of every European is a parliament that will have trouble carrying out its mandate.

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