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Falling poll turnout dents EU democratic credentials

AFP

Flags of the EU member countries are seen in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on May 9, 2014Flags of the EU member countries are seen in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on May 9, 2014

Flags of the EU member countries are seen in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on May 9, 2014Flags of the EU member countries are seen in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France, on May 9, 2014

European Parliament elections are supposed to give the European Union a more human, democratic face but steadily falling voter turnout highlights a key credibility problem.

There are nearly 400 million voters registered for the May 22-25 polls, but all indications are that most -- and probably even more than last time -- will stay away in droves. It's manna for eurosceptics and a bitter pill to swallow for the pro-Europe camp.

In the first election in 1979, participation was just under 62 percent, roughly in line with national voter turnouts but showing a huge range -- from nearly 85 percent in Italy to just over 32 percent in Britain, according to European Parliament figures.

It has been steadily downhill since -- an average of 59 percent in 1984, 58.3 percent in 1989, tumbling to 45.6 percent in 2004 and then 43 percent in the last polls in 2009.

In Slovakia, bottom of the pile, not even 20 percent of the electorate turned up in 2009, with Italy the best of the larger EU states on 65.1 percent.

Even the 'special couple' at the heart of the EU showed minimal interest. Turnout in France in 2009 came in at just 40.6 percent while Germany scarcely beat the average, scoring 43.3 percent.

Only around a third of eurosceptic Britain ever bothers to show up. It scored 34.5 percent in 2009 and a low of 24 percent in 1999.

Luxembourg and Belgium regularly hit around 90 percent, but voting is compulsory in both countries and that only highlights the problem of what many MEPs and analysts call a major "democratic deficit" in the EU.

Such low voter turnout figures show the "great weakness in the democratic legitimacy of he Union," says Antoine Vauchez of Paris University.

- Parliament more important now -

For many years merely a consultative body, under the Lisbon Treaty the next parliament gets some serious powers, with all EU laws requiring its approval.

The only directly elected EU institution, parliament also gets a say in who heads the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

Up to now the post has always been appointed by leaders of EU member states, but the Lisbon Treaty says they must henceforth take into account the results of the EU parliamentary election.

Parliament's top five groups from left to right have named candidates to head the Commission, with EU leaders expected to choose the person who can muster the most support from MEPs in the house.

That will prove a key test -- in the outgoing parliament, no one group holds an outright majority so bargaining and compromise are the norm on every issue.

That makes for a lack of political drama, and a sense that the parliament is incapable of taking tough decisions -- a major reason why voters are so unimpressed.

European political parties often seem to use the parliament to recycle politicians who have failed on the national stage, while the reluctance of member states to cede power on important issues further hobbles its effectiveness.

The main groups in the outgoing house are nonetheless spouting an upbeat outlook, with parties from across the political spectrum sharing a common slogan for the polls.

"This time, it's different," they say.

Perhaps.

Date created : 2014-05-14