THE SUPER-low election turnout that Slovakia posted in the May 24 European Parliament elections has sparked a blame game among the players at the national level.

Journalists tend to blame the political parties and the MEPs for treating the EP vote as second order elections, while politicians, in turn, blame the media for neglecting to cover European issues and the EP campaign. Analysts say the campaign has failed as such and both the media and politicians are to blame, while others still direct their criticism at Brussels, blaming EU institutions for being disconnected from what happens in the member states.

When asked what can be done to boost turnout, politicians and analysts used to stress the importance of Brussels communicating its work in a clearer and more comprehensive manner, so average Europeans understand that most of what happens in the EU has an impact on their daily lives.

Following the 13.05 percent turnout from the 2014 EP vote that left Slovakia way behind all the other member states and is an all-time low in the more-than-30-year-long history of the EP elections, communication no longer seems enough to remedy the situation.

Joint elections

Sociologist Martin Slosiarik from the Focus polling agency suggested the turnout could probably be increased through joining the EP election with some other elections that the voters perceive as more important. This was the case in Lithuania, where the EP elections took place simultaneously to the presidential elections last weekend. The turnout in the EP vote was slightly less than 45 percent there, up from 21 percent in 2009.

In Slovakia, on the other hand, two rounds of presidential elections took place one month before the EP elections. In hindsight, some observers admit election fatigue might be partly to blame for the low turnout.

“It is quite realistic to consider the low turnout to have also been caused by the fact that the voter was fed up with elections,” Pavel Haulík told The Slovak Spectator.

Others, however, dismiss any talk of electoral fatigue as oversimplified.

“That would be way too simple,” said sociologist Oľga Gyarfášová from the Institute for Public Affairs think tank, pointing out the facts that 87 percent of voters ignored the elections, and Slovakia has had the lowest turnout all three times it participated in the European election, as signals of much deeper causes than simply electoral fatigue.

“Even in the event that the EP elections were the only elections this year, the turnout wouldn’t be significantly higher,” sociologist Martin Slosiarik of the Focus polling agency told The Slovak Spectator.

Gyarfášová too suggested that if the issue of motivation is omitted and one only considers the technicalities of the vote, joining the EP vote with regional or municipal elections could work to some extent, as they do in some other countries.

“Some member states make participation in the vote obligatory, however, I don’t consider this the way to go for Slovakia,” Gyarfášová said.

Remedies

Interior Minister Robert Kaliňák directed the blame for the low turnout at journalists.

“I agree with Czech President [Miloš] Zeman that the media play a crucial role here, since you do not consider some things interesting and so you won’t write about them,” he told the Sme daily.
In the aftermath of the vote, some of the long-time MEPs, including Anna Záborská and Monika Flašíková-Beňová (both re-elected for another term), complained about the lack of coverage they receive from the national media.

Flašíková-Beňová also suggested that a change in the election system might help.

“Voters want to elect people, not parties,” she told Sme, noting that she repeatedly had people telling her they would like to vote for her (running on the slate of Smer) and Eduard Kukan of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ).

Analyst Miroslav Kusý also believes that the current voting system is unfavourable for the voter: they cannot pick their candidates, but have to entrust the entire political party, which sometimes is incompatible.

“I myself had doubts because I had my favourites but they were on a slate that I did not want to vote for,” Kusý told The Slovak Spectator, adding that a change in the voting system could resolve this dilemma for many voters.

Not only voters, but also political parties lack the motivation to devote much effort and money into the EP vote campaign, Kusý noted. When a party gets seats in the EP, there is no financial reward from the state, unlike in the national parliamentary elections, where the higher their vote count, the more money they obtain.

“They reckon they should do something when it brings a profit,” Kusý said.

Analysts who are less enthusiastic about the EU suggest that the problem with the low turnout lies deeper within the direction European integration has taken.

“The EU should look to returning powers to national parliaments and increasingly involve them rather than MEPs in decision making,” Christopher Howarth from the London-based Open Europe think tank told The Slovak Spectator. “What the EU should not do is waste more money on pan-European media and political parties and drop the spurious notion of MEPs indirectly electing the President of the European Commission.”

Andrej Stuchlik from the Brussels Office of the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank, on the other hand, opposes this, saying that citizens know too little about the EP and its work.

“Hence, more and more accessible information would be one route,” Stuchlik said.

Radka Minarechová and Zuzana Vilikovská contributed to this report