European elections are somehow odd; they are neither really European nor proper elections.
The above idea paraphrases Mark Franklin and Michael Marsh, and it is usually where I start my lectures about European Parliament elections.
Indeed, there is no direct link between the EP elections results and the way the European executive is portrayed. In other words, the direct representation mechanism that voters are familiar with on the national level does not apply here. The elections are not really European either because they are more driven by the domestic rather than the European agenda.
The two experts expressed this thought in 1996, but it remained valid for the years that followed, and also applied to the 2004 and 2009 EP elections that “new” member states participated in.
The Lisbon Treaty has brought several fundamental changes. It enhanced the competencies of the European Parliament and introduced the “Spitzenkandidaten” institute that gave the European election process a more personal dimension.
The changes also resulted in tighter links between the elections results and the executive that came out of the elections – the winning party chooses the European Commission president, and the European Parliament formally elects him or her.
The Europe-wide get-out-the-vote campaign that preceded the EP elections in 2014 ran under the slogan: “This time it’s different”, a reference to the new elements in the elections. Despite that, the election turnout did not increase on average and where it did, it was mostly due to the mobilisation of voters preferring eurosceptic parties. In some countries, the already low turnout fell even lower (i.e. Slovakia and Czechia).
In the end, it will really be different only in the upcoming 2019 elections. So much stems from the ongoing politicisation of the European agenda. The ghost was let out of the bottle a while ago, but since the 2014 elections, its “negative charm” has continued spreading.
With this politicisation, we have moved away from the “permissive consensus” that had characterised attitudes towards the European agenda, towards a sharp polarisation. The migration crisis which swept across Europe, Brits opted for Brexit in the referendum, the far right is growing stronger and the voices refusing the EU are gaining momentum in several countries.
The European agenda has become a topic that populists from various ideological backgrounds like to reach for and abuse for their political purposes at home.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán is a telling example. As a politician, he went so far casting aspersions on European politicians and institutions that even the long-hesitant European People’s Party finally decided to act and suspended his Fidesz’s membership.
We are witnessing the growth of eurosceptic voices and the far right across the EU. So, if the main slogan of the mobilisation campaign for 2019 is #thistimeimvoting, we must think of election turnout in connection with which parties the voters that will turn out to vote are supporting.
How people vote in European elections
The theory of second-order elections is the main starting point to research voters’ behaviour in the EP elections. The theory postulates that voters will turn out to vote in lower numbers than in first-order elections (typically parliamentary or presidential elections) and, moreover, they often vote differently.
Since the stakes are lower than in the national elections, voters are more inclined to allow themselves to vote “with their heart” or vote in protest (e.g. against the current national government). Thus, they often vote for various marginal and extremist parties. In the EP elections, the ruling parties are “punished” mainly if the elections take place in the middle of an election cycle, by which time the euphoria of the winners has faded and the pre-election “social packages” have not yet become the programme of the day.
In Slovakia, so far, the lower turnout principle has applied, but the second premise did not – voters who turned out to vote usually chose the same parties that they voted for, or would vote for at that point in time in the national elections. That is why the final election result was largely determined by the ability of the parties to mobilise their faithful voters, rather than by a fluctuation of voters.
Regarding the election result, we can also note that Slovakia has so far not sent extremists to the EP who would become members of some of the current eurosceptic or even anti-EU fractions Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (UKIP and Nigel Farage) or Europe of Nations and Freedom that was founded by Marine Le Pen.
Where we are now
That might change after these EP elections, though. Surveys (from the Focus polling agency from the school of political science of the Comenius University in March 2019) have so far favoured Smer-SD with 22 per cent, followed by Kotleba-LSNS with 13 per cent. The opposition SaS came third with 11 per cent, and five more parties have a chance to cross the 5-per cent threshold: OLaNO, Sme Rodina, KDH, the coalition of Progressive Slovakia and Spolu and SNS.
Of course, these results make it hard to come up with serious predictions. The campaign has not even started yet. But we can tell that the fragmentation of the Slovak contribution to the EP will continue and be joined by a new element – strengthening one of the EU-rejection clubs. To give a full picture, it should be said that there will be another novelty – Slovak MEPs will likely join the European liberals in ALDE.
There are several factors behind the fact that a large part of the Slovak citizens ignores EP elections. One of them is the Slovak public’s relationship towards the EU.
For a long time, we took comfort in the numbers showing the public is positive about the EU membership. The excesses that occurred, like burning the EU flag or removing it as a symbolic expression of refusal, were scarce and most often came from extremists.
But the majority’s positive attitude to the EU has very often been characterised by superficiality, indifference and pragmatical motives. All in all, numbers tell everything about the lukewarm relationship of Slovak citizens to the EU: election turnouts were 17 – 19 – 13 per cent.
Research recently presented by the European Commission Representation in Slovakia has pointed to the poor content of the EU membership in people´s minds as the driving factor behind these low numbers.
The research surveyed the perceived advantages and disadvantages of membership, with spontaneous answers from respondents. The perceived positives, as expected, were free movement, EU funds or job opportunities.
The most often perceived problems were living standards and social securities (like the increasing prices of foodstuffs, low pension, etc), or the dictate from Brussels in legislation.
The percentage of spontaneous answers was very low, however. Remarkably, almost two thirds of respondents were unable to name any pros and cons of the EU membership. This interesting “whole” in their perception is hardly a signal that the EU is becoming our adopted home.
To conclude: breaking the vicious circle of indifference will not be easy, but let’s look for its causes at home rather than in Brussels. In any case, it is important that the slogan “This time I am voting” strongly resonates among euro-optimists and not just among protest-motivated sceptics.