CEE helps drag down turnout at European elections

By bne IntelliNews May 26, 2014

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With trust in both the EU and national politics at record lows, Eurosceptic parties made strong gains - including in Central and Eastern Europe - in the May 22-25 elections for the European Parliament. However, the poor turnout is the biggest blow to the bloc.

It's testament to the pressures across the EU that mainstream party leaders in Brussels leapt to acclaim the fact that at just over 43% the turnout at the 2014 election avoided a meltdown, and was just above the record low at the 2009 polls. Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), insisted the forecasted disastrous turnout had not materialised. Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said, "we have finally broken the downward trend of falling participation," according to EurActiv.

Early results show that the conservative European People's Party is expected to remain the largest group in the Brussels parliament, with the EPP in the lead with 28.23% of the vote, which would give it 212 seats. S&D looks set for 24.77%, or 186 seats. 

However, extremists pushed the mainstream aside in France and the UK. Right-wing parties, many of them campaigning on anti-immigration platforms, also did well in Austria, Finland and Sweden, while Greek voters, fed up with the government's austerity programme, turned to the far left Syriza party. 

However, Commerzbank analysts note that while "the weekend's European parliament elections show[ed] that the electorates are unhappy with the way things are going... yet again the 30% threshold [was] not yet overcome by any far-right or far-left parties (or combination of the two)." 

Rock bottom

Scepticism about the EU was evident across CEE, with turnouts at rock bottom in several countries, despite the economic recovery that has taken root over the past few months. As elsewhere, in many ways the results produced by the few that did vote only magnified just how jaded is the electorate.

Although the momentum has been slowing in recent weeks, the gains from Warsaw's leading role in the EU response to the crisis in Ukraine was enough to push Poland's ruling Civic Platform (PO) party across the line. The ruling centre-right party has spent much of the past two years scrambling to catch up with the populist conservative opposition Law and Justice (PiS), and scraped just one point ahead with 32.8%. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) were in third place on 9.6%, while the anti-EU 'New Right', under the leadership of the political maverick Janusz Korwin-Mikke, provided the major shock of the night when it gained 7.2% of the vote. 

Despite the enormous benefits flowing from EU membership, largely because of billions in EU structural and agricultural funds that have transformed Poland since it joined the EU a decade ago, participation in elections to the parliament was lacklustre. Turnout was 22.7%, two percentage points down on 2009.

The elections were crucial for Prime Minister Donald Tusk, as they marked the start of a long series of votes over the coming months. Starting with regional elections, 2015 will see parliamentary and presidential races. 

In the run-up to the election, Tusk sought to link the European vote to larger questions of national security. "We are really standing before a fundamental problem, that eurosceptics and the European extreme right not gain such strength in the European parliament... that it does not lead to the creation of something that could objectively be called Putin's Fifth Column in Europe," Tusk said recently.

While the Ukraine crisis helped Tusk's party across the line, the emergence of Korwin-Mikke's New Right party suggests the PM could face bigger tests next year. Korwin-Mikke, a perennial political gadfly, has grabbed the attention of younger voters with his flamboyant pro-business and anti-EU message. He has even promised sell the European Parliament building and turn it into a bordello. However, recent comments saying that women are less intelligent than men, and that women have to be “raped a bit” because they “pretend to resist”, hurt him with female voters.

Slovak shrugs

Next door, with just 13% of voters bothering, Slovakia took the honour of having the lowest turnout in any country - a record it has held persistently since joining the bloc in 2004. The country's EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic said politicians need to seriously think about how to tackle the "Slovak paradox", reports EU Observer. People are generally supportive of EU membership and integration, but show an unprecedented lack of interest in the EP vote.

However, the low turnout did little for the extremists, with mainstream parties taking all of the seats. The left-leaning ruling party Smer took the biggest slice with 24.09%, but lost one of its five seats at the same time.

The Czechs also struggled to whip up much enthusiasm. The 18.2% turnout was the lowest of any national vote held in the country - and 8.7 percentage points lower than in 2009 - with the electorate having illustrated its frustration with the established political class when it voted ANO into a powerful role in the governing coalition in October. 

The new political project of billionaire, and now finance minister, Andrej Babis went one better on May 23 when it took the most votes in the European Parliament election with 16.1%. The second place secured by the conservative Top 09 (15.9%) marked something of a revival for the right, which was decimated at the last national election.

The Baltics are traditionally far keener to wear their EU badges, but despite the nervous glances being cast towards Russia, turnouts were still disappointing. Overall, Estonia saw numbers drop by 7.5 percentage points to 36.4%, while Latvia saw the biggest fall in the bloc, with its 30% turnout a whopping 23.7% lower than in 2009.

Lithuania, by way of contrast, saw the biggest rise - up 16.3pp to 37.3% - of any state. However, that was thanks to the fact that the European election was run concurrently with the second round of the presidential vote.

Incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite has declared victory over her Social Democrat rival in the runoff, as she sits on around 58%. An outspoken hawk on Russia and its recent aggression in Ukraine, the president called her victory "historic" because "Lithuania has never elected a president for second term before," according to AP.

As you were

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban promised more fights with Brussels on the cusp of the election, and his Fidesz party followed up its landslide re-election into government in April with an equally impressive margin in the European vote. The party won 51.5% to secure 12 of Hungary's 21 seats. Meanwhile, the far right Jobbik beat the opposition Socialist Party into third, winning 14.7%.

As in Poland and Hungary, Romania's ruling coalition maintained its lead in the European elections, taking over 40% of the vote, exit polls showed. The bloc composed of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Conservatory Party (PC) and the National Union for Romania's Progress (UNPR) is expected to take around half of Romania's 32 parliament seats.

The National Liberal Party and Liberal Democratic Party also did well, taking (PNL) 14.9% and 12.4% of the vote respectively. The main surprise in Romania was the showing for independent candidate Mircea Diaconu, who attracted 6.9% of the vote, the best result ever received by an independent in Romania. 

More elections?

In contrast, ruling parties received a blow in Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia. 

Croatia's centre-right opposition coalition led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) is expected to take six of the country's European Parliament seats, with just four going to the ruling Social Democratic Party and its coalition partners. 

In Bulgaria, the centre-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) is in the lead with around 28.4% of the vote, beating Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski's Socialist Party into second place. Gallup analyst Dimitar Ganev suggested the result is likely to encourage calls from the opposition for early elections, Novinite reported. However, the vote has been marred by accusations of vote buying. 

In Slovenia, just over 20% of the electorate turned out to vote, despite the European elections being seen as a dress rehearsal for domestic elections expected to take place the coming months. The results, therefore, likely spell bad news for the ruling Positive Slovenia. Opposition centre right parties are expected to take around five of the country's eight seats. 

Early elections have been on the cards since Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek resigned earlier this month, after she was ousted from the leadership of Positive Slovenia. Bratusek, whose government launched wide-reaching reforms and escaped an international bailout by the skin of its teeth, said a snap vote is needed to avoid a lengthy period of political turmoil. A date has not yet been set, but an election is expected by September at the latest. 


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