EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

For decades, the voter turnout in the European Parliament (EP) elections has been constantly decreasing. From 61,99% in 9 member states of the then European Community in 1979, to 42,54% in 2014 in the EU-28 format. This tendency has particularly applied to the Czech Republic; the country had the 5th lowest voter turnout in both the 2004 and 2009 EP elections (28,3 % in the EU-25 and 28,22 % in the EU-27 format respectively). The Czech voter turnout in the 2014 EP elections was the second-lowest among all the EU-28 member states with 18,20%. According to the “Trends of Czechia” opinion poll from January 2019 (Trendy Česka, KANTAR for the Czech Television), only one third of respondents know that the EP elections will take place this year. What are the cardinal reasons behind these numbers?

In order to better understand this situation, the following numbers from two different Eurobarometers surveys should be considered. According to the 2014 all-EU post-election public opinion survey, only 26% of Czech respondents trust the EU institutions – being the lowest EU score (and even a worse score than the UK’s 32% recorded in the same Eurobarometer opinion survey). Regarding the EP elections itself, 53% of Czech respondents think that they did not have all the necessary information before the elections according to the same survey (along with Portugal’s 54%, only those two countries recorded a majority result in this respect). Furthermore, according to the Eurobarometer survey from May 2018, called Democracy on the move. European elections – One year to go, 79% of Czech respondents are “not interested” in the European Parliament elections. In parallel to that, 56% of Czech respondents consider it “not likely” that they will go to vote in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Both those last-mentioned scores being the highest recorded among all the EU member states.

Those data illustrate the current situation regarding the EP elections in the Czech Republic. The low voter turnout in the EP election has been often explained by the Second order elections theory. From this point view, the voters are likely to miss some types of the elections (which can be for instance the elections to the higher Parliamentary chamber or the EP elections), because they consider them as less important, or because they are fatigued from continuous voting in a short timeframe. Taking into account the above-mentioned data from the 2018 Eurobarometer survey, and coupled with the fact that the Czech Republic has had 4 different elections since the last one and half year (Parliamentary election in October 2017, Presidential election in January 2018 and both Senate and Municipal elections in October 2018) – which could cause a strong voters’ fatigue – one can fear that this will also be the case in the upcoming EP elections. Another elemental part of the theory claims that non-governmental and small parties would get an advantageous position in the election. Put differently, dominant and governing parties are to “be punished” in those elections that the electorate do not considered as being important. However, if we consider the results of, on the one hand, Czech parliamentary elections, and, on the other hand, the results of the European Parliamentary elections, we can observe that this assumption does not fit to the 2009 and the 2014 EP elections. Indeed, in those two cases, the EP elections result of the governing parties was not radically different to the previous parliamentary elections’ result. Therefore, given the fact that the main political powers are often gaining similar results in both the Czech national parliamentary and the EP elections – regardless the difference in voter turnout – we should search for the reasons of the low Czech interest in the EP elections by the political representatives and their position toward the EU. In the Czech political sphere, we can – in a long term, not only a few weeks before the EP election – rarely see the leading Czech political parties proclaiming the importance of voting in the EP elections – or even engaging in the EU in general. This explains that Czechs being the most Eurosceptic, expressed in terms of 34% of respondents considering the country’s membership in the EU as a “good thing” according to the Parlemeter 2018: Taking up the challenge. From (silent) support to actual vote from October the last year.

The rapidly decreased voter turnout between the 2009 and 2014 EP elections in the Czech context can be explained by the turbulent changes in the EU – especially the consequences of financial crisis. Since the last EP elections in 2014, the EU have gone through new turbulences, especially regarding the issue of migration – which has largely been discussed in the Czech Republic and represented by a rather strict position of Czech representatives since the year 2015 on. On the side of the public opinion, this political position is being reflected by the fact that migration and border controls are considered to be the most crucial issue to be dealt with on the EU level (according to the above mentioned “Trends of Czechia” opinion pool from January 2019). This confirms the assumption that the position of Czech voters has been directly influenced by a form of representation on the country’s official political level. It therefore appears that the interest of Czech voters in the EP election will not increase unless the representatives themselves adopt a different approach towards the EU in a long-term context.

Nevertheless, there are ample reasons for Czech citizens to vote in the upcoming EP elections, regardless of the quality or lack thereof of Czech-EU political debate in the Czech Republic. The common decisions taken on the EU level can have an impact on a daily life; reduction of air pollution both internally and from neighbouring countries, quality and food and water, equal opportunities across the EU to prevent brain-drain, environmental challenges – all challenges that cannot be solved unilaterally by individual member states. The upcoming EP elections promise to be the most seminal elections in recent memory; voting in them has never been more important.

Jana Vlčková

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