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Sunday, June 7, 2009

The European Parliament election of 2009: the "summer of discontent" poll?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

An election is currently taking place in the 27 member countries of the European Union, to choose 736 members of the European Parliament for a term of five years. Some countries went to the polls on June 4, 5 and 6, but most are holding the election on Sunday, June 7. In addition, one of the smallest members of the EU, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, will hold a parliamentary election simultaneously with the EP poll.

The European Parliament 2009 elections website bills the event as "27 countries, one election," but it would be more appropriate to speak about 27 separate elections that happen to be held simultaneously across a four-day period. Even though all EU countries use proportional representation to allocate EP seats since 1999 (when Great Britain proper switched from first-past-the-post to PR), the rules vary from country to country, and the U.K. actually uses two electoral systems: closed party-list PR for England, Scotland and Wales; and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for Northern Ireland's three EP seats (the latter since 1979, when the European Parliament became a popularly elected body).

In addition, European elections tend to be dominated as much by national issues as by European issues - hardly surprising in light of the fact that the elections are contested by not by EU-wide parties but by the political parties active in each member country, which subsequently form parliamentary groups in the European Parliament that reflect Europe's major political currents (i.e. Socialist, Liberal, Conservative, Green and so on). In fact, European elections in many countries are little more than glorified mid-term elections, or in some cases (such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Portugal) dress rehearsals for general elections to be held later this year.

Meanwhile, in some countries this year's European poll has been overshadowed by national scandals, such as the ongoing M.P.s' expenses controversy in the United Kingdom, and more recently the publication by the Spanish newspaper "El País" of racy photos taken in the private villa of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - who already faces a messy divorce and had previously secured a ban over the publication of the controversial pictures in Italian news media.

Just as important, the EP vote is taking place in the middle of a global financial crisis that has hit the newer members from Eastern Europe particularly hard. The now-wobbly economies of many of these countries appears to have reinforced a growing sense of "buyer remorse" - or more accurately, admission remorse - among large sectors of public opinion in many Western European EU members, which already had serious reservations about bringing in countries that had considerably lower standards of living and of governmental transparency - in particular Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's two newest (and poorest) members.

As it happens, the economic hardships brought about by the ongoing financial crisis appear to have created a fertile environment in many countries for right-wing populist parties preaching a thinly veiled racist and xenophobic discourse, typically anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and often anti-East European as well as anti-EU. These parties, which have developed a motivated following, may also benefit from the low voter turnout that has characterized recent European elections in most member countries.

The declining turnout rates in European elections constitute something of a paradox, as the European Parliament has actually become a more powerful institution over the course of the last three decades. However, an Eurobarometer survey (EB71.1) carried out in January and February of this year indicates that while a slight plurality of respondents believes the EP's role within the European Union has been strengthened during the last decade, nearly as many say it has stayed the same or has been weakened.

Moreover, the European Parliament does not yet play a role as powerful with respect to the European Commission - the EU's executive - as that of national parliaments relative to their respective governments: for example, EP approval is not always necessary for EU legislation. The less-than-straightforward role of the European Parliament within the EU - somewhat reminiscent of that of a 19th century parliament under a limited monarchy - appears to be a major factor contributing to the low turnout: in the Eurobarometer survey, an insufficient understanding of the EP's role was cited as the main reason for not voting in European elections.

However, a large plurality of Eurobarometer respondents indicated they would like to see the European Parliament play a more important role than it currently does; in fact, the EP's role will be significantly strengthened if the Lisbon Treaty is ultimately approved - a development that might raise the institution's relatively low profile and pave the way for higher turnout rates in future European elections. In the meantime, the sad truth remains that for many EU voters, EP elections don't even register on the radar - less than a third of respondents was aware an European election was due this year, according to the Eurobarometer survey - or simply aren't viewed as relevant: the perceptions that voting in the event would not change anything, and that the EP did not sufficiently deal with problems concerning respondents were the second and fourth most frequently cited reasons for not voting in the election; not being sufficiently informed to go to vote ranked third.

European election results were not supposed to be available until Sunday evening, but in an unprecedented breach of rules, the outcome of the European vote in the Netherlands became available after the polls closed there last June 4, much to the displeasure of EU officials; preliminary figures have the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) in a strong second place, just behind the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Meanwhile, the Labour Party (PvdA) - the junior partner in Balkenende's coalition government - suffered heavy losses, but the opposition, social liberal Democrats 66 (D66) soared to their best EP result since 1994. However, the turnout rate stood at just 36.5%, well below the 80.4% turnout in the country's 2006 general election.

There is no doubt the Party for Freedom - whose leader, Geert Wilders faces prosecution for making anti-Islamic statements - has tapped into a strong undercurrent of discontent in the Netherlands (at least among those bothering to vote in the election there), but it remains to be seen how strongly and in what manner will that discontent manifest itself in other EU countries.