Electoral Choices in Central and Eastern Europe

In their preview of the elections to the European Parliament posted on the EPERN Blog on March 31st, Paul Taggart and Aleks Szczerbiak rightly stress that ‘“Europe” remains a very diverse and multi-dimensional issue’ and – from views published after the results were announced – this seems to be just as true for those commenting on the elections as it does for the voters themselves. While the political establishment in France and the United Kingdom trembled in the face of advancing hordes of Front National and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters, those living on planet Brussels expressed relief that a higher election turnout had actually brought positive results. European Parliament (EP) Liberal leader Verhofstadt noted with apparent pleasure that, for the first time, turnout was ‘going up and not going down as we have seen in the last 30 years’ while leader of the Socialists and Democrats, Hannes Swoboda, was equally pleased that the forecast ‘big disaster’ did not happen (EurActiv May 26). Such sanguine views were possibly not shared by Nick Clegg or François Hollande. The higher turnout thus welcomed in the EU as a whole was, further, a less than spectacular rise of 0.9% on the modest 43% achieved in 2009. Perceptions of the election results were, indeed, mixed.

It was, too, in terms of turnout that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) generally attracted most attention. Slovaks maintained their reputation as the Europeans least inclined to vote with a turnout of only 13% (www.results-elections2014.eu/en/country-introduction-2014.html). All other CEE countries, with the exception of Lithuania (where the vote was combined with one for the presidency), also showed levels of turnout below the EU average. Compulsory voting laws in Belgium and Luxembourg (countries where 90% participated in the election) raised the voting average in Western Europe and the EU overall, but turnout in the countries of CEE as a whole was still strikingly low and declined from the 2009 level in eight of the ten countries that were EU members at that date. Apart from Lithuania, it was only Romania that saw a higher turnout (to a modest 32%). The low turnout was doubtless associated with the fact that in no post-communist country was there a populist Eurosceptic victory like that of UKIP and Front National or, for that matter, Beppe Grillo’s M5S in Italy, the Danish People’s Party or Syriza in Greece, all of which captured more than 20% of the vote.

This, in turn, reflected the fact that the surge of Euroscepticism and dissatisfaction with the EU apparent in Western Europe was not seen in CEE. As in other respects, Hungary was something of an exception and the far-right Jobbik attracted 14.7% of the votes. But even this was way below most predictions and a marked decline from the 20.3% it had gathered in the national election in April, just a few weeks earlier. Elsewhere, populist anti-EU parties were even less successful. In Poland the Congress of the New Right gained 7%, Slovenian and Slovak Nationalists 4% each, Bulgaria’s Ataka just 3%, and the Party of Greater Romania even less. Of these parties, only the Polish Congress has gained any seats.

As a general rule, it was governing parties that headed the list as they consolidated their existing position. This was clearly the case with Fidesz, which received 51% in Hungary, similar to their share of the national vote the previous month. Governing parties also prevailed in Latvia, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia and Slovakia, with between 24-46% of the vote. The ruling Social Democrats also won in Romania where more people voted than in 2009, probably because of growing interest in the presidential contest to be held later in the year and greater public awareness of shifting party alignments. Turnout, it seemed, was not affected the same way in Slovenia, where the government had recently collapsed and national elections were also imminent. In this context, it was the opposition Democratic Party that won.

Overall there were few surprises and the post-communist countries did not share the strong Eurosceptic turn apparent elsewhere (although they had also suffered considerably during the economic crisis that gathered momentum after 2008 and also – in some cases like Slovakia and Slovenia – felt the direct pressures of the Eurozone crisis). There was, too, little scope for the anti-immigrant sentiment that fed the populist forces seen in the West (hardly surprising, as many immigrants came from the East). All in all, the elections in CEE were not just second-order events, as has generally been the case (see Taggart and Szczerbiak), but were often seen as a routine of rather little significance. Nearly half of Czech respondents in one survey just thought that the EP elections were not necessary (EUobserver 25 May). It is, nevertheless, interesting that dissatisfaction with the national government – which is hardly negligible in CEE – has not transmuted into anti-EU sentiment in the way seen in France and the UK (the fact that the current administration is better regarded in Italy and Germany seems to have limited anti-EU electoral currents in those countries).

In similar vein, Slovak analyst Zuzana Gabrizova dismissed concern over the low turnout in that country and noted that there were just no strong incentives for people to vote (EUobserver May 25). Recent data certainly point to a more supportive view being taken of the EU in Slovakia. Much like the average EU citizen, in March 2014 60% of Slovaks perceived the situation of the European economy as bad or very bad; the overall EU figure was 58% (Special Eurobarometer 415). They were, however, significantly more inclined to trust the EU (45% compared to the 32% EU average). A European University Institute (EUI) study from 2013 (The Euro Crisis and the State of European Democracy) showed that the sharp decline in trust in EU institutions since the start of the crisis was indeed most pronounced in the original 12 members of the Eurozone, that is: excluding the CEE countries as well as Malta and Cyprus. Also significant, and largely confirming West European apprehensions, in terms of what the EU means to them personally Slovaks particularly valued the freedom to travel, study and work throughout the EU: 52% against an EU average of 44% (Special Eurobarometer 415).

Given these responses, the widely expressed view that low turnout rates are alarming and show that the ‘last remaining bit of enthusiasm for the Union seems to have vanished in numerous eastern European countries’ (EUobserver May 26) appears rather simplistic. The low propensity to vote may indeed show that enthusiasm is in short supply, but it does not necessarily mean that Slovaks and other CEE citizens are as disenchanted with the EU and as keen to leave it as are major parts of the West European electorate. Similar views, and a willingness to accept the rough with the smooth in terms of EU and even Eurozone membership, have been detected in the context of the economic crisis by the EUI study referred to above. Hungary, Romania and Latvia all applied for IMF loans and were thus obliged to follow its financial sustainability requirements, a similar path being followed by Eurozone candidates who were part of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. This meant that strict austerity measures had to be taken, as not doing this would have endangered prospects of Euro membership or existing Euro arrangements which were regarded as more important for governments and electorates than short-term improvements in growth and employments (See: K. Armingeon, ‘National fiscal responses to the economic crisis’, in The Eurocrisis). It was a question of priorities, which had, in turn, a distinct influence on voting patterns in the EP elections. For this reason, popular opposition to, and electoral protest against, these measures was considerably more muted than in Western Europe.

The election of a new EP was not the only one held on May 25th. Just across the border of the EU a presidential election was held in Ukraine, a country whose long-running crisis sparked in November 2013 by President Yanukovych’s rejection of the Association Agreement proposed by the EU and whose problematic relations with Russia were of far greater importance to the CEE countries than to Western Europe. The experience of Soviet Russian rule was a not too distant memory in most countries of the region, and Russia’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs was seen as a direct security threat. In some countries, Poland and Latvia in particular, developments in Ukraine and the stance taken by different parties had a strong effect on voter preferences, although it clearly did not motivate people to vote. Nevertheless, ever since the end of World War II the countries of CEE had been faced with a clear alternative in terms of East or Western affiliation, even if their inhabitants had little or no choice in the matter. In 2004, most of them had made a clear choice for EU membership, with three more following suit in 2007 and 2013. This had been the decisive choice, and the make-up of the EP (itself a rather ambiguous body) was a matter of no great interest, a factor which goes a long way to explaining low turnout and the absence of major currents of opposition to the EU in the elections.

Paul Lewis

(p.g.lewis@open.ac.uk) is Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Studies at the Open University, UK.

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