“This time it’s different!” announced a major mobilisation campaign by the European Parliament (EP). What was new about the elections to the European Union’s only directly elected institution were changes brought to the EP by the Lisbon Treaty – more competencies, but in particular a closer connection between the decision of European voters and filling the position of head of the European executive. The slogan “This time it’s different!” foreshadowed greater interest and thus also greater voter participation.
This was confirmed in several member states (Great Britain, Greece, Romania, Lithuania), albeit at the price of a rise in support for Eurosceptic parties. In many Central and East European countries, however, the trend of voter participation moved in the opposite direction. Slovakia again set a record in non-participation with 13% voter turnout, surpassing its own records in 2004 (17%) and 2009 (19.6%). Slovakia was followed closely, however, by the Czech Republic, where participation reached 18% (five years ago it was 28%), Poland (23%), and the EU family’s newest member, Croatia (25%). Ten years after entering this prestigious club and a quarter century after the fall of undemocratic regimes when a “return to Europe” was a yearned-for goal, what kept citizens in this part of the EU away from the polls?
Searching for the causes
The “Slovak paradox” – this is what the unusual combination of above-average positive sentiment towards EU membership and passively ignoring elections has begun to be called. Politicians ´were already discussing it before the elections, and there was even a certain shrugging of the shoulders and sense of resignation over the greater mobilisation effort. In other words, a sigh; Slovak voters are now satisfied but disinterested, so why go to the trouble of appealing to them? And to a large extent this is how the campaign went. Thus, the first reason for the low voter interest can be attributed to the political parties themselves, who view European elections as inferior and act accordingly. Many parties, including the largest party, Smer-SD, did not even offer a programme. While programmes do not determine elections, they constitute a certain anchor for parties’ positions on important issues – a compass for voters, but also a sign of importance for the party itself.
In addition to the pan-European personalisation of the elections in the form of the large parliamentary groups’ nominees for the post of Commission President, in Slovakia (and not only here) we could also count on an acute politicisation of the elections. In terms of the number of parties, the list was truly long (29 entities and 333 candidates contested the elections), but the programmatic offering lagged behind and the elections lacked substantive debate.
Another contributing factor to low voter participation in the European elections was citizens’ relationship to the European level of policy. We are truly living in a multi-level system of administering public affairs. The crossover between the European and national levels, however, as well as the significance and range of the European level, are not yet deeply rooted in people’s perception. Much of this is due to national leaders’ communication about the EU. They criticise “Brussels” or hide behind it when forced to adopt unpopular measures or to explain a setback. On the other hand, they like to take credit for successes that come from Brussels. In so doing, they create an impression of the EU as an impersonal, illegitimate institution – a sort of “Laputa” which rises above them, but on which we have no influence, not even through our domestically elected politicians. European Commissioner and Smer-SD list leader Maroš Šef?ovi? has mentioned in several discussions the “8th floor effect”, where he places the Council of the European Union. Here, national leaders make fundamental decisions and stand behind them with solidarity and unanimity. But afterwards they descend to the ground floor, where journalists await them, and now they take a different line – the decisions were made by others. And when they come home, personal responsibility for European policy vanishes completely. But the reverse is also true – a European agenda is missing in domestic elections even though it should be an integral, cross-cutting component of all policies. Not to mention the fact that national leaders do not communicate at all about the activities and ideas of other European parties or their own parliamentary groups.
This is also related to the overall level of discourse about the EU. Even the recent festive commemoration of a decade of EU membership was seen mainly through the optics of “a full pantry”. And this doesn’t need our voice; to the contrary, it underscores the pattern of passive acceptance.
Interaction between the European and national levels can also be fundamentally influenced by Slovakia’s own 13 MEPs, but most of them are only visible at election time. A campaign ahead of European elections is no substitute for five years of silence on European issues.
In explaining the causes of Slovaks’ repeated disinterest in European elections, however, one must also explore the deeper layers of cultural policy and values. The Slovak mentality has always been more focused on oneself; society has recorded in its historical memory that questions about its fate are decided elsewhere. This historical legacy also begets a weaker interest in events beyond one’s “own backyard”. And in Slovakia there is still a “them” (in Brussels) and an “us” here at home.
Slovakia’s 13 MEPs will be a colourful bunch
Although the elections were won by the governing party, Smer-SD (24%), it fell far short of its showing five years ago, not to mention its success in the 2012 early parliamentary elections. Smer-SD will have four MEPs who will strengthen the Socialist Group. The centre-right Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Slovak Democratic and Christian Union – Democratic Party (SDKÚ-DS) each defended two seats. The Party of the Hungarian Community will remain in the EP as well, although with only one mandate. These three parties are established members of the EPP. The parties O?aNO, NOVA (both presently without a clear classification or profile), Most-Híd (EPP) and SaS (ALDE) are newcomers to the EP with one mandate each. The results thus to a certain extent reflect the current situation on the Slovak political scene – a strong party on the left and a fragmented centre-right spectrum. It must be noted, however, that it is difficult to draw far-reaching conclusions about current support for individual parties from these results – not only because of the critically low voter turnout, but also in view of the fact that these elections were not contested by the new party Sie?, which performs significantly better in voter preference surveys than any of the centre-right parties and will probably play its cards in the upcoming communal elections this fall.
There is a 5% cut-off in Slovakia, and various nationalist parties fell short of this threshold. The Slovak National Party (SNS) failed to defend its one mandate, and the feared right-wing extremist party of Banská Bystrica Regional Governor Marián Kotleba, People’s Party – Our Slovakia (?SNS), received only 1.8% of votes. To illustrate his position towards the EU, one must only recall that the governor had the “occupation flag of the EU” removed from the building of the regional assembly. Apart from that, in simulated student elections held in secondary schools throughout Slovakia this party would have finished second with three MEPs – a warning sign for the future.
One colour is chronically absent from Slovakia’s variegated representation in the EP, however – green. A party with a modern post-materialist liberal orientation which is pro-European and considers important the agenda of protecting minorities in Slovakia has not (hitherto) emerged.
The critical drop in voter participation provoked an intensive search for culprits – politicians blame the media, the media blame the politicians, and all point to voters’ irresponsibility. In many areas, the prevailing sentiment is that these elections have no winners, that we have all lost and that active Europeanism will remain a fantasy. Breaking out of this vicious circle of disinterest – which is widespread despite all the benefits of membership – will be no easy task.
This article was originally published by the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Foundation.