The May 2014 EU election saw the lowest voter turnout on record, according to updated figures discretely released by the European Parliament during the summer holiday period for EU institutions.
The updated numbers, published on the Parliament website, show that turnout struggled to reach 42.54% in 2014, well below the 43.1% initially announced.
Diplomatic pencils will be being snapped in despair at the lowest public enthusiasm for an EU poll since 1979, when elections were first held.
The tweaked figures will also come as an embarrassment for EU officials who had hailed the results of the 2014 poll for finally reversing a trend of declining voter engagement with EU polls.
The Parliament in particular ran its entire campaign on an assumption that the economic crisis would boost voter turnout, with the slogan “This time it’s different”.
It was, but not in the way that lawmakers expected.
Jaume Duch Guillot, the Parliament spokesperson, said on election night that the EU had witnessed “a historical moment because for the first time since 1979, the long term trend of declining turnout has been reversed”.
Turnout is seen as a litmus for the EU Parliament’s democratic legitimacy by many but it has fallen steadily, from 62% in 1979 to 43% in the 2009 election.
Worryingly for europhiles, the new low will call into in question the legislative credibility of the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the lead candidate for the liberals and a convinced federalist had initially hailed the marginally-higher turnout estimate, saying the new Parliament “will be more representative than the previous one”.
The actual result will also cast doubt on the experiment of having lead candidates – or ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ – campaigning for the major European political families.
When the first result was estimated, Simon Hix, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics (LSE) said that it proved “the validity of the experiment to personalise the campaigns and focus them on European issues”.
A Parliament spokesperson quoted by the EUobserver news website said the change in turnout numbers was due to differences in estimated and final results for Spain and Italy.
Still, the spokesperson put on a brave face: “When you look at the final result and the figure that was estimated at the end of May – those two figures are very close. The final figure, which is a little bit lower than in 2009, confirms that the big descending tendency of previous years has been stopped,” the spokesperson told EUobserver.
Turnout did in fact rise in some countries, notably Greece where the sovereign debt crisis and austerity measures imposed by the EU/IMF bailout drove the population to vote en masse. The presence of populist parties with activist bases – particularly the far-left Syriza which won the vote they had billed as a referendum on the bail-out deal – may also have helped turnout there to climb from 52.61% in 2009 to 59.97% in 2014.
The numbers in other bail-out countries decreased:
- In Spain, turnout reached 43.1%, lower than the 44.87% recorded in 2009.
- In Portugal, turnout fell to 33.67%, down from 36.77 in 2009.
- Ireland saw the biggest drop, to 52.44%, down from 58.64% in 2009.