Europe, Headlines | Analysis

EUROPE: The East Casts a Shadow

Analysis by Pavol Stracansky

BRATISLAVA, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - A “failure” by Eastern European leaders to lift political campaigns above domestic disputes and change apathy towards European institutions was behind low turnout and far right party gains in European Parliament elections this weekend, political analysts say.

The effects of the economic crisis in the region coupled with lack of information on the workings of the European Parliament led to many voters staying away or giving their votes to fringe and radical parties in protest against their governments, they say.

“Mainstream politicians must reflect for a long time on the results. They failed completely to get the message across to voters about the European parliament and European issues,” Grigoriy Meseznikov of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think tank in Bratislava, Slovakia, told IPS.

Ballots held in all 27 EU states to elect 736 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) between Thursday and Sunday last week ended in historically low turnout and a shift to the right.

Turnout was especially low in Eastern Europe. Slovakia recorded the lowest turnout at just above 19 percent. In Lithuania the figure was little better at 20.5 percent, while in Poland only 24 percent of voters went to the polls.

In the Czech Republic preliminary results showed that 28 percent of voters went to polls, and in Romania the figure was 27 percent. In Hungary the figure was relatively higher at 36 percent – but down from 38 percent in 2004.

Experts say that for some time many voters in the region have felt that the European Parliament, along with other European institutions, is a remote and ineffectual grouping where politicians earn lavish salaries – MEPs will be paid roughly 7,000 euros per month in the five-year term following the elections – with large additional expense accounts funded by taxpayers.

The election campaigns did nothing to change this view.

“People feel that institutions like the European Parliament will not change life very much for them,” Nils Muiznieks, director of the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute in Riga, Latvia, told IPS. “Some voters feel that the European Parliament is like a club for well-paid politicians, and they think that Latvia does not get very much out of European institutions.

“There has been little debate (in pre-election campaigning) about the European Parliament for the public to hear. There is not a lot of understanding about what it is, and what it actually does and is responsible for.”

Some also point to a lack of contact between MEPs and constituents caused by the distance between them and the parliament in Brussels, which creates a feeling among potential voters that the European Parliament has little influence on their lives.

Peter Kreko of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest, Hungary, told IPS: “Many people in Hungary and across Eastern Europe feel that all these European bodies are a long way away and they have little understanding of them and how they work. They feel the European Parliament, and MEPs, are remote from their everyday lives.”

When first created, the European Parliament’s mandate was limited. But since the first election in 1979 – when voter turnout was 62 percent – its powers have grown, and it now scrutinises more than two-thirds of all EU legislation, covering areas such as trade, transport, workers’ rights, communications, laws on the environment, and immigration.

In some eastern European countries voters said election campaigning was focused more on domestic politics than on European issues and presenting information about the workings of the European Parliament. Surveys in the run-up to the elections suggested that this had led to many becoming disillusioned with politics in general.

Media in Poland quoted voters as saying that they felt the campaigns had often ended in local parties criticising each other instead of debating issues such as the use of EU funds and application of EU legislation.

A study released at the end of May by the German-based think tank Foundation for Future Studies showed that two-thirds of Poles believed politicians lied to them, while half said they were disillusioned with politics and political parties.

“The fact that domestic agenda is presented in campaigning is bound to be reflected in voting, and the results have been more a reflection of domestic issues than European ones,” the IVO’s Meseznikov told IPS. “The election results have been a message to mainstream politicians that they need to make European politics more visible.”

But the election turnout and results have also been strongly influenced by the economic crisis, analysts say.

Eastern Europe has been particularly hard hit by the global economic downturn, and countries like Hungary, Romania and Latvia have had to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial help, while economies across the region shrink dramatically.

This has brought growing antipathy towards both domestic and international political institutions, which people see as having failed to prevent economic and social hardship. Many national governments across the continent fared poorly in the elections.

Populist far right parties, many of which portray immigrants and minorities as taking jobs from locals and being an unfair drain on welfare systems, while also claiming that pan-national institutions like the European Parliament are robbing countries of their sovereignty, made gains as people turned away from mainstream politicians.

Radical parties in Eastern Europe won a large share of the vote. The extremist Jobbik party in Hungary took 14 percent of the vote and will have three seats in the European Parliament.

In Slovakia the far right Slovak National Party (SNS) won its first seat. In Romania the extreme right-wing party PRM won two seats. In neighbouring Bulgaria the anti-EU, xenophobic ATAKA party had 11 percent of the vote.

Analysts say the public political discourse among MEPs is now likely to become much more controversial, and the parliament will give a new public platform for far right ideology across the continent.

“The far right radical parties have been able to strengthen their positions,” Meseznikov said. “They are very diverse and in the parliament it is unlikely they will be strong enough in number or unity to affect decision-making much. But what we can expect is more controversial public political discourse and statements. This could influence right-wing thinking and support for it.”

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