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EDITORIAL

What keeps EP interest low

THE EUROPEAN Parliament's (EP) inability to live up to handling the everyday problems of Europeans destines the June elections for low turnout across the continent. Slovakia can hardly be expected to be among the better-performing countries.
The new parliament, which will serve until 2009, will be elected in all 25 member countries between June 10 and 13. Voter turnout has dropped since the first direct elections took place in 1979.
That first vote was attended by over 65 percent of eligible citizens in the nine countries that then held elections. By 1999 that figure was down to 52.9 percent. In the United Kingdom, only 24 percent of voters used their right five years ago.

THE EUROPEAN Parliament's (EP) inability to live up to handling the everyday problems of Europeans destines the June elections for low turnout across the continent. Slovakia can hardly be expected to be among the better-performing countries.

The new parliament, which will serve until 2009, will be elected in all 25 member countries between June 10 and 13. Voter turnout has dropped since the first direct elections took place in 1979.

That first vote was attended by over 65 percent of eligible citizens in the nine countries that then held elections. By 1999 that figure was down to 52.9 percent. In the United Kingdom, only 24 percent of voters used their right five years ago.

Studies show that the declining trend is not likely to be reversed this time around. Just over one third of EU15 citizens say they definitely plan to vote in the EP elections, according to a Eurobarometer survey released this month, although as many as 55 percent say they are likely to vote.

Some hope new members will bring additional momentum to the event. Not so. Eurobarometer for the 10 new members shows that only 44 percent of acceding countries' citizens are likely to participate.

The reasons are simple - the EP does not deal with issues of importance to the people, and people don't understand its role within the system of European institutions.

"In most accession countries citizens expect the EP election campaign to address the problem of unemployment," read the conclusions of the new-members' Eurobarometer survey.

"Agriculture is frequently ranked among the top three desired foci of the EP campaign. Obviously, issues specific to the country rank high in each accession country," the report continues.

The situation for Slovakia matches the overall picture in new member states, except that "rights as an EU citizen" are ranked second, instead of agriculture.

EU15 citizens selected employment, immigration, and the fight against crime as the three most important issues upon which the election campaign should focus.

Yet in all these areas the EP has little say. Although EU institutions do have some role in the field of employment and social affairs, the states themselves have the sole competence for employment policy.

Although the Slovaks' concern for "rights as an EU citizen" is a vaguely defined concept, it can be assumed that issues that fall within its scope will be mostly covered by the new European constitutional treaty, again leaving little role for the EP in the coming five years.

And while issues of national interest are understandably something voters are interested in, it is difficult to imagine just what national interest Slovakia's 14 representatives could push through in the gigantic assembly of over 700.

Besides, recent research shows that party cohesion is becoming ever more dominant when it comes to voting in the EP, gradually eradicating voting based on nationality.

Representatives of Slovak parties, an absolute majority of which are affiliated with one of the EP's political groups, are unlikely to reverse the trend.

Not only does the EP not deal with the main topics troubling Europeans, its position within the system of governing bodies is far different from the position of national parliaments in any EU country.

The EP does few of the things Europeans expect a "parliament" to do in a way they expect a "parliament" to do them.

Whatever the role, powers, and significance of the EP, it's impossible to sum them up in one sentence, unless it's a very long one with very many "buts" and "howevers".

That's not the sort of definition that can easily pop up in a voter's mind as he is looking for motivation to go to the ballot box come election day.

As a result, voters in new member states, including Slovakia, seem to view the EP as a relatively irrelevant institution. As many as 37 percent say it has no effect on their lives, according to Eurobarometer, while 33 percent feel it has some.

National and regional governments, national parliaments, and the EU as a whole are all viewed as more influential.

The situation gives little chance to come up with specific agenda for the election campaigns of Slovak parties, not known for their passion for specific policy issues or substantial visions anyway.

These are the general problems with which most countries will struggle, but Slovakia has a couple more on top of that.

Firstly, voters are fatigued by general elections, municipal elections, two referenda, and two rounds of presidential elections, which all took place over the last 20 months.

Both rounds of presidential elections attracted less than half the eligible voters.

Secondly, as many as 70 percent of Slovaks "go for personalities first when selecting their MEPs", according to Eurobarometer. The parties offer few.

Out of all candidates for MEP, three are among the country's most popular politicians. Monika Beňová of the opposition party Smer leads the pack, enjoying the trust of 2.8 percent of Slovaks, according to a survey by the Statistics Office released on April 21.

These are clearly not people able to rally mass support.

Aware that campaigns may be a waste of cash, Slovak parties seem to have given up on major campaigning. Slovak media report that there are no plans for large public meetings, free goulash, or concerts by major stars.

The EP elections are, in many ways, reminiscent of the 2001 elections for the bodies of the newly established greater municipal units (VÚC).

Then, as now, was the first time people had the chance to elect their representatives to bodies that were new to them.

At the time of voting, no one knew exactly what competencies the VÚCs had and how their role would change in the future. The same is the case with the EP.

Both will be remembered for modest campaigning, a lack of major topics, and the absence of major personalities.

Voter turnout for the first round of VÚC elections was around 26 percent.

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