Last night, prior to going to bed, I placed the notice with information on my polling station for the European elections on the kitchen table — to remind myself to go and vote. Afterwards, I was surprised about my behavior.
Given that I am a politically informed and conscientious citizen, a regular consumer of news, and, besides, a political scientist – I was shocked by my assumption that I may forget to vote, which clearly was meant to disguise my disinclination to vote.
Obviously I am not alone with my ambivalence. The electoral turnout for the European elections remained low, below fifty per cent in most European Union countries. This is no novelty and the explanations are equally well known: Europeans do not care enough about Europe; Europe is too big and ‘far away’ for citizens to grasp; trust in political institutions is on the decline; and, the financial crisis may have tired us out and contributed to our disenchantment.
The above list of reasons is based on various surveys about political attitudes and is valid to a certain extent. However, it does not fully account for what is going on.
There are at least two other issues that require further reflection:
• The first is specific to European Union politics. The European Parliament (EP) as the legislative branch of EU government displays a weak link to the executive branch of government as represented by the European Council. Even though the influence of the European Parliament on policy decisions has progressively increased during the last decades, the fact that the electoral results do not directly affect the distribution of power works against voter mobilization.
(The decision this year to use the results to additionally determine who is elected President of the European Commission has only marginally changed matters. This is because formally the EP vote is not binding; and because the Commission has itself only partial executive powers)
• The second issue is more far-reaching than the first. The existing evidence suggests that the lower turnout in European elections is only symptomatic of a more general trend. In turn, this correlates with the declining capacity of political parties to mobilize their potential voters or attract new ones. Extremist parties have less of a problem than mainstream parties in this respect, albeit only occasionally.
What both issues highlight is the mismatch between electoral politics (and mobilization strategies), on the one hand, and real politics, on the other hand.
The problem faced at European level is how to ensure citizen input into a supra-national polity that is functioning according to a complex inter-governmental model of decision-making. It is not enough to behave as if this system was equivalent to a traditional parliamentary democratic system. Either we adjust the polity to better fit existing models, or, if this is not possible or desirable, we come up with new procedures of representation of political opinion.
As to the more general decline of the capacity of political parties to mobilize (their) voters, this has a lot to do with their insistence to continue packaging their messages according to ideological narratives (on the left-right spectrum) that are no longer relevant other than in normative and symbolic terms. Single-issue mobilization, which for some years served as an alternative, is also beginning to display fault lines.
There is, of course, no clear answer to this complex set of problems. But maybe it is not so much about finding solutions, but rather about improving political communication.