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EU: Ruling Parties Suffer Strong Rebuke In European Elections

The elections to the European Parliament in the 25 member states of the European Union have been characterized by two marked trends. One is that voters often rejected ruling parties, voting instead for opposition parties. The other phenomenon was low overall voter participation, with turnout reaching a rock bottom of 17 percent in one EU state. What do these trends say about democratic life in the newly expanded union?

Prague, 14 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Results of the European Parliament elections suggest that voters around the European Union used the occasion to punish governing parties at the national level, regardless of whether they were on the political right or left.

The preliminary results show ruling parties suffering setbacks in Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, as well as in the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic states, and Scandinavia.

In some cases the losses were staggering. Germany's ruling Social Democrats recorded their worst electoral showing since World War II, garnering half as many votes as the conservative opposition Christian Democrat/Christian Social parties. In France, the same happened to President Jacques Chirac's center-right Union for a Democratic Movement, which was routed by the opposition Socialists.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party lost out to right-leaning parties, and Poland saw a similar development. By contrast, the ruling Socialists in Spain and the ruling conservatives in Greece managed to increase voter support.

The unpopularity of the U.S.-led Iraq war is seen as having lost Blair votes, while German and French economic stagnation was what hit Schroeder and Chirac.

As outgoing European Parliament President Patrick Cox put it, the voting was almost entirely devoid of a pan-European dimension.

"It's the missing of Europe from our European elections. And that needs to be addressed. If we look at the results almost everywhere, they are like mid-term tests of government. That has its own validity, but this was not about the nation-state, this is about the future of the European Union, and regrettably Europe is too absent from European elections -- East and West," Cox said.

Why? Politics Professor James Waltson at Rome's American University said the national governments and opposition parties consciously hijacked the Euro-elections for their own purposes. In Italy, for instance.

"Here in Italy, it was blindingly obvious that the whole election campaign was around the figure of [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi and domestic issues, and Berlusconi made himself a 'candidate,' as it were, and he made it very clear that he wanted an endorsement of his domestic policies, not what his party was going to do in Brussels or Strasbourg," Waltson said.

The four-day Euro-elections, billed as the biggest transnational exercise in democracy, came only six weeks after the EU expanded eastward to take in 10 new member states on 1 May.

But the new eastern states were the least enthusiastic, dragging overall voter turnout to 44.2 percent. That's the lowest recorded in the 25-year history of direct elections to the European Parliament. Among the 10 newcomers, overall participation reached only 28 percent. Within that figure, individual republics like Slovakia recorded a small 17 percent and Poland 20 percent.

That would seem to be a failure of the democratic process. But on examination, the turnout figures are not as disastrous as they seem. Senior analyst Marco Incerti, of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, noted that among the "old" EU states, turnout actually increased in some cases over the last elections in 1999.

He says there were increases in participation in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, and Portugal. Incerti admitted, however, to being disappointed by turnout in the east.

"The big concern is now the new member states, because we were all hoping that they would be so excited about exercising their democratic rights, but that does not seem to be the case," Incerti said.

He blamed the poor quality of the election campaigning for this lack of interest, as well as the widespread lack of public understanding about what the European Parliament does.

In Prague, analyst Peter Drulak of the Czech Institute of International Relations, gave another reason, namely that eastern voters are not yet psychologically ready for such close engagement with the EU.

"One of the reasons that people were not so interested in the European elections is that during all the years when these [Eastern European] countries tried to return to Europe, the accession was the key point, and nobody thought about what they would do after the accession," Drulak said. "So [when] we entered the European Union, there was a general feeling that it is over now, and so from this point of view, the European elections are something which does not fit this framework, because, if it is over, why bother with the voting?"

In the new European Parliament itself, enlarged to 732 seats, not much will change in spite of the voter preferences. The European People's Party, the grouping of conservative parties, remains the biggest grouping, with 272 seats. It is followed by the Party of European Socialists with 200, then the Liberal Democrat grouping, with 67, then the Greens with 42, and other smaller groupings.

Although anti-EU and far right parties will have more seats, they will still be only a comparative handful.