Brussels warily watches voter turnout decline

BRUSSELS, Belgium — European politicians admire many things about Barack Obama, and one of them is the way he used “social media” to pull in record numbers of voters and make them feel that he was personally devoted to making their lives better.

Can the European Parliament follow that lead? Can it tweet and Flickr itself out of obscurity?

So far, it seems it can’t.

Every five years, Europeans are called to the polls to choose the lawmakers who will control a growing proportion of the rules and regulations that govern their daily lives. (See my introduction to this year's European Parliament elections.)

And every five years the proportion of European Union citizens casting a ballot has shrunk.

Voters prefer to pay attention to national elections, even though as much as 80 percent of the legislation their country’s leaders will be required to implement now originates at the European Union level.

This year, despite enormously important transnational issues — the global economic crisis, energy security, public health threats — there is no sign Europeans will reverse the downward trend and turn out in greater numbers June 4-7.

And, some experts say, no one should be surprised. “If you’re a voter, it’s totally rational for you to be completely turned off,” said Simon Hix, a political science professor at the London School of Economics and one of the foremost analysts on voting behavior in EP elections.

While EP voter turnout is low (45.5 percent in 2004), it is still not as small as turnout for the U.S. mid-term congressional elections (36.8 percent for the House, 29.7 percent for the Senate in 2006). But, Hix said, there’s a possibility EP turnout could dip to 35 percent this year or even lower. Anything below 30 percent overall would raise “serious legitimacy questions” for the parliament, he said. Experts worry that turnout could be in the teens in some of the newer member states.

Even though the EP is the only directly elected body among the EU institutions, Hix said voters don’t feel a “direct” connection to the process. In many EU countries, people vote for a party, not a person, and the party chooses who will be sent to Brussels. With that system, Hix said, individual politicians have little incentive to appear before voters to explain their records, expound on the issues and argue that they are the best person for the job. Consequently, EP elections become mid-term referendums on the performance of national governments, Hix said. Those who do participate use their votes to punish or reward parties based on national issues.

This year's election might be even more focused on national parties than past contests as polls show voters are most concerned about unemployment and the economy, and less interested in how the EU handles foreign policy. They want government to do more for them in their everyday lives.

To increase voter engagement, Hix said, candidates should compete directly, instead of being chosen because they are high enough in the hierarchy of a successful party. Some member states already use such a system. It would increase politicians' incentive to engage and help motivate voters, Hix said, and could encourage the news media to pay more attention to the elections.

Make that the mainstream news media. European elections may not make the nightly news, but debate is thriving in some corners of the blogosphere.

The European Journalism Center (EJC), headquartered in Maastricht, Netherlands, created one such community, a site called TH!NK ABOUT IT. Described as a “dynamic community of bloggers, journalists and journalism students, a forum alive with debate and discussion, a creative portal to inspire youth involvement” in the elections, the site offers all that in a political culture starved of it.

Anne Autio, EJC’s managing director, said she was not sure the blogging contest, launched in February, would gain traction.

“The EU in general is not considered to be the hottest topic in newsrooms around Europe,” Autio said. She worried no one would post to the site. But sensing a need for a place where conversation could live, “we wanted to take the risk,” she said.

The EJC invited bloggers from each member state to participate and 81 accepted. Now, almost 500 posts and 2,000 reader comments later, Autio said TH!NK is considered the “most successful discussion forum in these elections. The quality of the blog posts is amazing, which shows that young people have a lot to say about European policy issues, when given the chance.”

TH!NK’s homepage includes lively stories about the campaign of a Sudanese-born candidate for the Youth Party in largely mono-ethnic Slovenia, a critique of the EU’s floundering plans to diversify energy supplies, and speculation on what effect the new report of rampant child abuse in Catholic institutions might have on Ireland’s EP election results.

The EP has put great effort into its own online presence, but its Twitter and Facebook pages are mostly informational rather than interactive. The EP's initiatives include a YouTube channel, MySpace and Flickr pages, slickly-produced videos on the parliament’s website and co-productions with MTV.

Other independently-created websites let users look up an MEPs voting record or figure out which party is the best fit for them

But the breadth and depth of information available about the European Parliament begs the question: Does anyone want to know? Are  these “products” — for which the EP is spending 18 million euros (about $25 million) — making any difference? Or will it take, as Simon Hix insists, a reform of the entire process before people are drawn into participating?

Anne Autio reports that tens of thousands of people are following TH!NK’s debates online.

The European Parliament’s Twitter feed has 57 followers.

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