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Western Press Review: EU Elections In Focus As Turnout Disappoints

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 14 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An expanded Europe of 25 member nations headed to the polls for the first time last week (10-13 June) in Europe-wide elections for the European Parliament. But the low voter turnout, particularly among Europe's 10 new members, has some observers wondering whether the EU's legislative body is undergoing a crisis of credibility. Other issues addressed today include upcoming elections in Afghanistan and Belarus's longstanding ties with so-called rogue states.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE

An editorial published today says that even among EU supporters, it is "fashionable" to dismiss the European Parliament as being "unwieldy, irrelevant [and] corrupt." So there is little surprise that the parliamentary elections that concluded yesterday have been "characterized by deep pessimism about pan-European democracy."

Voter turnout was expected to be low, particularly in the 10 countries that joined the union on 1 May. And the editorial says that "fringe parties" that are "opposed to the very idea of a European Union appear to be gaining ground." The campaign leading up to the vote has been dominated by national issues at a time when the debate should be about Europe as a whole. And the discussion "is more often about perks and scandals than about European concerns." The paper says the newly elected parliament "should move to restore public faith by cleaning up the murky business of its members' expenses."

The paper says European citizens tend to underestimate the importance of the parliament, even as it now writes close to 60 percent of the laws that are eventually adopted by EU member governments. This legislative image problem is partly a result of politicians treating the election campaign as a "stepping stone" for their national political ambitions, rather than allowing Europe-wide issues to shape the debate.

The "International Herald Tribune" suggests expanding parliamentary powers will put the focus back on Europe. "When it is the European Parliament that decides on questions of immigration, policing, justice and commerce, it will be harder to ignore the assembly's importance -- [or] to argue that pan-European democracy is not possible."

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

"Opponents of European integration made their first big breakthrough in the European elections yesterday with the victory of Paul van Buitenen," says an editorial in the British daily. Van Buitenen's Europa Transparent Party won 7.3 percent of the Dutch national vote, thus winning two of the 27 seats allotted to the Netherlands in the European Parliament.

As an auditor in 1999, van Buitenen's revelations of widespread "fraud, nepotism and dirty tricks" led to the resignation of the European Commission. He was later rebuked for his actions, "suspended on half pay and disciplined for breaching staff rules by revealing abuses to lawmakers in the European Parliament after his superiors tried to cover them up."

But the paper says he has "carried on the fight, claiming that nothing has changed under the new team and that the villains of the 1999 scandal have been shielded by the old-boy network in Brussels, in some cases moving to top posts."

With his party's unexpected victory yesterday, the Dutch whistleblower "will now have a staff, ample resources and a platform on the parliament's budget watchdog."

THE NEW YORK TIMES

"The New York Times'" Craig Smith says, "[one] of the world's biggest exercises in democracy" reached its conclusion yesterday amid "a dismal turnout and with widespread apathy over the outcome." Almost 350 million people were eligible to vote as the European Union's 25 member countries headed to the polls to elect members of the European Parliament. Nearly 14,700 candidates were competing for the 732 seats of the EU's legislative body.

"In many countries, [the] elections served as a rebuke to the incumbent government administrations" as voters "used the poll to express their dissatisfaction with [their] governments." Taken individually, parliament members have little power because drawing up most EU legislation requires consensus building and consultations with national governments. But the vote was, overall, "less a referendum on Europe's future than a series of local popularity tests for hundreds of parties and thousands of politicians," including two astronauts, several athletes, a Nobel laureate and a star in pornographic films.

But Smith suggests that even more widespread than EU voter irritation might be voter apathy, or simply a lack of information about the role the parliament plays in EU affairs.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE

"Angered by high unemployment and painful reforms, European voters [used] the historic occasion of the first election to span the former Iron Curtain to punish governments across the expanded European Union." Thomas Fuller and Katrin Bennhold say many voted for opposition parties and those on the fringe. But some analysts say "the biggest winner in the election was apathy," as turnout slumped to percentage points in the low 40s Europe-wide. The estimated turnout in new EU member Czech Republic was just 29 percent and participation in the nine other countries that joined on 1 May neared the same level.

Voters used the elections "to voice their discontent with national policy." Domestic issues dominated, "ranging from the economy to the deeply unpopular involvement of some administrations, notably Britain and Italy, in the war in Iraq."

Although the European Parliament's laws will "directly affect businesses and citizens across the EU," the authors say voters had been motivated by more local concerns. According to a poll this month by Sofre and Gallup Europe, "[long] unemployment lines and the threat of terrorism were voters' foremost worries" across the EU.

THE INDEPENDENT

"From Paris to Prague, Europe's governments suffered ritual humiliation at the polls last night, as protest votes were cast in their millions," writes Stephen Castle in Britain's "The Independent." The "world's largest transnational elections" revealed that Europe's voters "are deeply disgruntled, with many turning to maverick candidates to show their discontent."

Early polls showed governments in Britain, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Denmark were "facing a voter backlash over support for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq."

But even those that opposed the war were not spared voter ire. The Social Democratic Party of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a vocal critic of the decision to go to war, was "punished [for] the poor state of the economy and unpopular social security reforms." And in France, voters left the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party -- which also opposed the war -- "in their droves."

THE WASHINGTON POST

A joint contribution by Andrei Sannikov, former deputy foreign minister of Belarus, and Mark Lenzi, a former Fulbright scholar in Eastern Europe, says some top Iraqi officials may have escaped to Belarus in the days following the U.S.-led invasion of their country.

"Belarus has a history of close cooperation with rogue states, and of extremely poor relations with the United States." Before the war in Iraq, "Washington ignored signals that clearly indicated Belarus was not only Iraq's most active ally in Europe but was also willing to provide refuge for members of Hussein's regime."

Belarus's "erratic" leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, covertly aided Iraq with ballistic-missile development and supplied Baghdad with advanced antiaircraft technology. Belarus has, moreover, reportedly sold arms to six of seven countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. State Department.

"Being as diplomatically isolated as he is, Lukashenka has little regard for world opinion," the authors say. Over the past eight years, Washington has "halfheartedly tried to convince Russia of the need to change the situation in Belarus." But Moscow "has chosen not to use its overwhelming leverage on Lukashenka to improve his dangerous behavior. As a result, the Belarusan regime has become more belligerent and increasingly dictatorial."

Sannikov and Lenzi say the U.S. administration "must formulate a clear and independent policy" on Belarus, which "continues to actively support state sponsors of global terrorism while acting as a destabilizing force in Europe."

LOS ANGELES TIMES

"'Free and fair' democratic elections in Afghanistan may be good for President [George W.] Bush's war on terror and his reelection prospects in November, but they are not what Afghans need now," says Ahmed Rashid, a Central Asian affairs analyst and author.

Rashid says a recent rise in violence "and U.S. pressure to carry out the September elections has dramatically curtailed reconstruction and humanitarian aid projects" and has allowed the Taliban to reassert control in some areas. The "dire security situation" today "has prompted many Afghans, European diplomats, UN officials and nongovernmental organizations to see the Afghan elections as chiefly a White House political objective."

International aid to Afghanistan is foundering, Rashid says. Of the $70 million pledged to help run the election, not one penny has been delivered, according to UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva. And the growing problem of Afghanistan's opium crops is not being dealt with. Last year the country supplied 75 percent of the world's heroin, Rashid says.

But the main problem in Afghanistan "is the failure of Western nations to live up to their commitments to provide peacekeeping troops." NATO took up command of the International Security Assistance Force last August, but "has not deployed promised troops and equipment [to] improve security across the country before the elections."

"Regrettably," Rashid says, holding elections prematurely "will only perpetuate and legitimize what is not working in Afghanistan." The vote should instead be postponed until spring "to allow the U.S. and international community to make a more concerted effort to deal with the country's escalating security problem."
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