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Is There a Decline in Turnout at the European Elections?

The struggle to hold onto the life after the World War II devastations of Europe in 1945, public weary of war, economic decline and increasingly chanted slogans of make peace, no war have prompted European leaders to do something. Especially the support from US against the danger of the Soviet Union accelerated this process[1] and enabled Europe to take important steps towards becoming a Union. First of all, resolving the issues between France and Germany has led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC),[2] which was the first integration movement, and the success of this first integration has paved the way for the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) and the European Economic Community (EEC). Later, these three Communities have been gathered under the roof of “European Community”. Europe has managed to proceed on its way as a Union for 53 years since 1951 by an expansion and deepening process.

But, what is the role of the people of Europe in this integration process? Why do people stay away from the polls that represent themselves? We may be able to discuss the level and rationale of commitment of people to the polls in Union by looking at the turnout in parliament elections.

First, let’s look at the people’s turnout in elections since the parliamentary elections of 1979. The first election was held in June 1979 with the pressures of European federalists, despite the objections of Britain, Denmark and France on elections.[3] There was a total of 185 million voters and the turnout was 63%. This first direct election was like a first breath for Europe in terms of participation in democracy.[4]  The first Parliament had 410 members,[5] and although this figure increased in later elections, the turnout of 63% has decreased on the contrary. In the elections held every five years, the public turnout was 58.88% in 1984, 58.41% in 1989, 56.67% in 1994, 49.51% in 1999, 45.47% in 2004, respectively, and decreased to 43% in the last elections held in 2009.[6] The public’s distance from the ever-strengthening Parliament and lack of interest is remarkable despite the increasing powers of the European Parliament with the revisions. The lack of people’s interest to polls gains importance assuming that the democratic legitimacy of Parliament is ensured by the presence of members directly elected by the people. However, the awareness of European people on the activities of the European Parliament or the Union, and how much of the new regulations enacted in the Union became a matter of public record is arguable. That is to say we have to consider both sides of this issue: the distance of the Union to people and public sensitivity in this regard.

At this point, looking at the turnouts of countries at the European Parliament elections since the direct elections of 1979, we can see that the best turnout was in Belgium since 1979. Although Belgium has the most turnout by 91.36% in the first direct elections in 1979, it has maintained its position in the 2009 elections.[7] However, it is not quite right to relate this high turnout in Belgium with EU-consciousness. Imperatives of countries for elections or the methods of punishment are also important. For example, looking at Belgium in this respect, it is seen that there is a punishment system implemented for banning certain rights of an individual who haven’t voted at least four times, such as banning for voting rights for the next 10 years or exerting difficulties in finding a job in the public sector. This certainly will have an impact on the turnout at the European Parliament elections.[8] In the same way, other countries may implement similar practices. Looking at the countries with higher turnouts in particular, it is seen that Luxembourg was in the second place with an 88.91% turnout in 1979, with a maximum of 91.35% in elections in 2004, and maintained its position with a turnout of 90.75% in 2009. The effective factor here is a process to mandate voting, just like in Belgium. Belgium and Luxembourg are followed by Malta with a turnout of 78.79%. And, this is followed by countries such as Italy, Ireland, Denmark, France. The lowest turnout in parliamentary elections was seen in Slovakia in the 2004 and 2009 elections with turnouts of 16.97% and 19.64%, respectively, and this is followed by Lithuania, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland in 2009. Of these countries, especially the case in Lithuania is remarkable. There was a rapid decline in turnout from 48% in 2004 to 20.98% in 2009. The turnout was decreased by more than half. According to results of a survey conducted after 2009 elections on the European Parliament election, among the reasons to refuse to vote there were answers such as general dissatisfaction and trust issues on politics by 28%, the lack of information regarding European Union and the European Parliament by 10%, and dissatisfaction with the European Parliament by 8%.[9] It is seen that the turnout of the countries that became member country[10] in 2004 was lower than other countries.[11] This can be attributed to several reasons. In the literature, the uninformed people of the member countries in the course of the transformation and change of the Union is the most criticized part. Rejections by the people of the member countries in the referendum on Treaty texts can be shown as a concrete example in this regard. In particular, the rejection of Maastricht Treaty by French and Dutch people in its first ballot has created a perception that the Treaty texts were not publicized, introduced sufficiently. And, another point of view relates this situation with the depoliticization of European people, not with an opposition against the European Parliament elections and the European Union. In fact, distrust on politics and disbelief on any change seen in a report[12] written in 2009 confirms this view. An Euronews interview with Slovakians published on April 1, 2013 reveals that people lost desire to vote due to lack of adequate information on elections, lack of expectations regarding a solution by election on the present issues, the gap present between voters and elections, as well as distrust on politics.

What should be done in this regard? Why it is so important to vote in the parliamentary elections. Jo Leinen, member of European Parliament and Social Democratic Party, emphasizes[13] in this regard that the groups that constitute majority according to election results are able to select the Council Chairperson in the newly created European Parliament according to the Lisbon Treaty, and thus European parties have the opportunity to introduce their candidates before the elections and conduct their election campaigns by candidates advocating a particular program. In this way, to vote in parliamentary elections becomes more attractive. Renewing and harmonization in EU is not enough. To inform the European public about what’s new is necessary. Although there are regulations on common culture policies for cultural amalgamation of people in this deepening integration process, these are still inadequate. Publicity campaigns, informative seminars at the local level, and elective courses, particularly to inform young people on this issue, may be included as well. In addition, making the European Parliament elections in a single day, instead of four days, as in local elections is among the proposals submitted.[14] However, to vote in the parliamentary elections is of great importance in terms of the democratization of the Union. This will reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the Parliament, which is chosen by the majority of people in Europe and becoming increasingly important in the Union’s decision-making mechanisms, and the public will be more effective in decision-making. The turnout was as low as 43% in parliamentary elections in 2009, and now it is awaited impatiently to see how effective was the publicity and whether this figure will be increased in elections in May 2014.

Author: Didem SAYGINResearch Assistant, Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, Department of Public Administraton, İstanbul University, Department of European Union PhD student. More information about author.


[1]”Marshall Plan” was one of the most significant aid in this direction. The Marshall Plan was fully effective only after intensive negotiations. For details see, Desmond Dinan, ‘Avrupa Birliği Tarihi’, (İstanbul: Kitap Yayınevi, 2008), p. 39-41.

[2] Especially the coal reserves in the Ruhr area was important for France for steel production. Therefore, the Ruhr region has been the cause of conflict between France and Germany. Consensus was only possible by the transfer of powers in this area to a supranational institution.

[3] Desmond Dinan, ‘Avrupa Birliği Tarihi’, p. 216.

[4]‘Building of Parliament: 50 Years of European Parliament History: 1958-2008′, European Parliament History 50th birth series, 2009, s. 37, http://www.ab.gov.tr/files/ardb/evt/1_avrupa_birligi/1_1_tarihce/50_years_of_european_parliament_history.pdf, (Date of access: February 13, 2014).

[5] European Parliament Official Site, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/0005bfbc6b/Number-of-Members-per-Member-State.html (Date of access: February 13, 2014).

[6] For turnout details of 1979-2009 Parliamentary elections, see http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/000cdcd9d4/Turnout-(1979-2009).html February 13, 2014), (Date of access: February 13, 2014).

[7] Turnout was 92.09% in 1984,, 90.73% in 1989, 90.66% in 1994, 91.05% in 1999, 90.81% in 2004 and finally 90.39% in 2009.

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2005/jul/04/voterapathy.uk, (Date of access: February 27, 2014).

[9] Election Survey 2009, Report Study, the original name ‘SondaŜ powyborczy 2009 r.’ http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/28_07/EB71.3_post-electoral_final_report_PL.pdf (Date of access: February 16, 2014).

[10]Malta and Republic of Cyprus are excluded, since Malta was in the first three with a turnout of 78.79%, and Republic of Cyprus was placed at the top with a turnout of 72.5% in 2004, and 59.4% in 2009.

[11] Especially Slovakia, and countries such as Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic are meant due to decrease in 2009 elections.

[12] Again, see Election Survey 2009, Report Study, the original name ‘SondaŜ powyborczy 2009 r.’ http://www.europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/28_07/EB71.3_post electoral_final_report_PL.pdf (Date of access: February 16, 2014).

[14] For Euronews’ story, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iPJI5dZvRlo (Date of access: February 12, 2014).

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