Stephen Chittenden, BBC, June 4, 2009
Giant chickens, pop stars and celebrities have all been recruited to end Slovakia’s record as the EU’s most apathetic country.
At its first-ever Euro elections in 2004 the turnout was just 17%. So on 6 June the big question is whether the voters can lift their country off the bottom of the table.
Among the candidates is sitting MEP Peter Stastny of the centre-right SDKU party. He is a former ice hockey star who captained the national team to their first Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. He says the record low turnout should be a matter of shame to the Slovak people, and is in favour of celebrities on the candidates’ list.
“Absolutely we welcome this,” he says. “You know we’re being asked many times what we’re doing to make sure we don’t finish last. And I say I’m a professional athlete, I hate to be last. I would do anything.”
Breaking the mould
African-born singer and comedian Ibrahim Maiga is running for the left-wing SDL party. He is a well-known figure, whose infectious humour and songs about his homeland Mali may well boost support for his anti-racist campaign.
“I don’t think Slovak people are racist,” he says. “I really want to fight this election just to show Europe that Slovakia has a great future in Europe. If I’m elected and for the first time in history a black man represents Slovakia that’s going to be obvious to all of Europe.”
There is no obvious single reason for the Slovaks’ reluctance to vote. It is certainly not because of public dislike of EU institutions. On the contrary, recent polls suggest they have more trust for the European Parliament than in any other member state.
Robert Hajsel, head of the Slovakia office for the European Parliament, suggests this contentment may explain the low turnout.
“They are actually happy and maybe don’t feel this need to change something,” he says. “If they are satisfied with the European Parliament sometimes they really don’t see that they have to go and vote.”
And if this “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” explanation fails to convince, Mr Hajsel offers another: voter fatigue. He says the 2004 elections may have come too soon after a vote to join the EU.
“People were asked to go and vote just one year after the EU membership referendum, when 90% said yes. When the people were asked to vote again, they didn’t know why.”
The EU has been doing its own bit to boost voting, with three-dimensional installations dotted round Slovakia’s main towns. Each poses questions about how voters can shape the world around them.
In a central Bratislava square, three large warning signs ask how much security people might want. In Trnava, 50km away, there is a bizarre display of two giant wrapped chickens, which focuses on consumer protection.
But Slovakia’s experience is just part of a trend toward lower turnouts right across the EU. Falling voter numbers prompt questions about how representative MEPs really are, according to Dr Julie Smith, Senior Lecturer at Cambridge University’s Centre of International Studies.
“The argument from the parliamentarians has always been ‘We are the recipients of democratic legitimacy, we have a direct mandate’,” she says.
“But you know turnout of under 20% clearly raises questions about the integration process of the European Union itself. And it raises questions about just how much support those MEPs have got.”
So there is more than national pride at stake. In 2004 Slovakia’s first-placed party won the support of less than 3% of the total electorate. This time the target for campaigners is modest: an increase in turnout sufficient to lift them off the foot of the table, and restore the tattered reputation of Slovakia’s voters.