Communication may improve voter interest in EU elections, analysts say

09/06/2014

Analysts debate what the Union can do to engage Balkan voters.

By Lindita Komani for Southeast European Times in Tirana -- 09/06/14

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Voter turnout in the Balkans and East-Central Europe for the EU parliament elections was lower than the 43 percent average turnout across the rest of the Union. [AFP]

Turnout in EU Parliament elections can be increased through better communication with citizens, analysts said, after statistics showed that most voters chose not to cast ballots last month.

Voter turnout in the Balkans and East-Central Europe for the EU parliament election May 22nd to 25th was 27 percent, significantly lower than the overall 43 percent throughout the Union. The lowest turnout was in Slovakia, where 13 percent of voters took part. Newly admitted EU member Croatia had 25 percent turnout; Bulgaria had 36 percent; and Romania had 43 percent.

"They have the wrong message to always talk about the economy, and the wrong way of communicating it, solely online in never-ending, boring 1998-style websites," Andrea Gerosa, founder of ThinkYoung, a Brussels-based think tank, told SETimes.

Gerosa said one way to improve voter turnout is to overcome the focus on the economic aspect of the Union, with little or no attention to other relevant political, cultural, north-south integration and other issues that citizens perceive as equally important.

"They are as important as the economic aspect," Gerosa said.

Gerosa also said the EU Parliament and the European Commission must make optimal use of their communications budgets to better inform citizens. Less than 10 percent of citizens can name the current presidents of both institutions, she said.

The EU also needs to better inform the public about the Union's advantages and benefits and improve the perception of the European MPs, according to Suada Shahini, an entrepreneur in Rijeka.

"The people who represent us at the European Parliament are viewed as being there only for personal benefit and to earn good salaries," Shahini told SETimes.

Analysts said turnout in some countries like Romania can be increased if local officials, especially mayors, raise interest in their communities.

"[Otherwise] the most popular elections in Eastern Europe will remain the presidential polls and things will not change," Razvan Orasanu, a research director of the Romanian Academic Society, a think tank in Bucharest, told SETimes.

Another issue is the length of time between national and EU elections such as in Slovakia, which held presidential elections in March, said Fjoralba Caka, researcher and lecturer on the EU at the University of Tirana.

"People were somehow tired to go again to vote two months later, given that the national elections [are viewed] as more important than the EU elections," Caka told SETimes.

Belgium and Luxembourg had the highest voter turnout of 90 percent, but in those countries voting is compulsory and coincided with local and federal elections, said Mathias Dobbels, a political advisor to the Social Democratic Party in Belgium.

"Compulsory voting has advantages, but introducing it Europe-wide may be a wrong instrument. Introducing a Europe-wide list can help," Dobbels told SETimes.

Analysts said the new EU sceptics entering parliament will affect turnout for the better by prompting regrouping among EU proponents, and by co-operating with them as EU-sceptic MPs become more pragmatic and pro-EU over time.

"All the new MPs will shake up a bit the old, traditional and entrenched system. They will be fresh water and probably will force traditional parties to innovate and find new ways of working together, which is always a good thing, especially for young people. We are going to experience very new things in the next five years and we are very much looking forward to work with it," Gerosa said.

Analysts also said Brussels can bridge the turnout gap by focusing more on internal reforms, employment, and pressing issues like energy, likely as part of the central debate on EU widening and deepening.

"[I]f at this moment, the EU leaders deem that the Union will go stronger by deepening the reforms among actual member countries -- rather than engage in widening -- it is only natural that this will delay the enlargement agenda for a while," Caka said.

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Analysts predicted that the new composition of the EU parliament will increase citizen interest by concentrating the debate on the Union deepening vs. widening. [AFP]

The development is a new chapter in EU history and comes at a time when conflicts in countries surrounding the Union provide new perspectives on how the EU should develop, Gerosa added.

"The EU was founded after World War II based on the idea of economic co-operation but in 2014, Europe needs to raise the bar," Gerosa said.

Increasing turnout may also require politicians to more readily accept and address citizen criticism.

Initiating a debate on specific EU-funded projects that will include explaining that 70 percent of the laws are drafted in Brussels can improve turnout, according to Orasanu.

"An information campaign should also be held in schools, even though this may be too sensitive," Orasanu said.

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European MP Davor Skrlec of the Sustainable Development of Croatia party said greater direct engagement with citizens -- such as initiating meetings in his Zagreb office -- will improve knowledge of EU policies and consequently increase turnout.

"I will also hold public hearings through Croatia to inform the public about current issues in the European parliament and of interest to Croatia. Moreover, I will inform people how to use EU funds for the purpose of regional development," he said.

Correspondents Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest and Kruno Kartus in Zagreb contributed to this report.

What can the Balkan countries do to increase turnout for EU parliament elections? Share your opinion in the comments section.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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