The Purpose and Duty of the European party-led Parliamentary Elections

Part 3. On the Reluctance to Participate in the Democratic Process.

, by Nico Segers

The Purpose and Duty of the European party-led Parliamentary Elections

A knowledgeable audience that is willing to assess the election programmes critically, will likely succeed in distinguishing the crucial points of difference and defaults through comparison, upon which they decide which ‘set’ of policy perspectives takes precedence for them. Though voters hardly ever decide with the interest of all Europeans in mind, they’re practically only considering issues relevant to their own situation. This is a deficiency that is exploited, especially by parties that promote xenophobic, exclusivist and nationalist programmes to their electoral target groups.

The aforementioned negative argumentations wrongfully discourages citizens to think in a broad space of possibilities, which also distorts the idea of a common political responsibility that we all share in Europe.

My argument aims to denounce the attitude of disinterest and in particular the mentality of defeatism, in defence of the electoral intent. Because voting is more than a duty. It is an inherent and unalienable privilege that should be defended at all times and yes, even scrutinized in its procedural integrity and democratic impact.

That is a totally different message than a cold and minimalist ‘legally binding’ commitment that emphasizes that ‘showing up at the ballot office’ is some annoying ‘theft of my time’. After all, there’s no public moral interest attached to a blank or void vote, true. But the European Parliament is only weakened by this form of bias, because the ‘reason for representation’ could eventually be called into question.

Voting is more than a duty. It is an inherent and unalienable privilege that should be defended at all times.

Acknowledging the fact that Brussels ‘decides over our heads without consulting us citizens’ either stems from an apologetic kind of ignorance or either indicates a lack of voicing our persistent concern. Don’t forget: the basic political power tool to indicate public protest towards the EU lies in petitioning and lobbying regional or national political representatives. Only if we continue to sleepwalk in a perverse mode of ‘deniable complacency’, we are burying alive the very standards of democracy we hold dear and on which our lives as European citizens draw much purpose.

The audacity of the vote. The right to vote is entirely free to be exercised, except for four countries in the European Union (Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Cyprus). Sure, there is a ‘free choice’ of the citizen to do as she or he wishes after entering the ballot booth, given the fact the voting card is correctly returned. He or she might as well do or cast nothing, or worse: rig the voting process by tampering, marking or destroying the plastic card (s), or by obstructing the good order and conduct of the proceedings. But such resolute acts of despair against the establishment are surely marginal and (let’s face it) utterly useless, if they occur at all.

We must press for stronger citizen-related initiatives that re-invent the attempts at establishing participatory democracy.

Notably, it are national political and civil law traditions that have kept the divisive issue of European voting to become compulsory at bay. There’s a firmly rooted concept of securing private life from involuntary government interference in the United Kingdom that is laid down in the Bill of Rights. This is an important and clearly liberal democratic principle, yet it is one that has always impeded the ways in which the UK government seeks interaction and commitment from its citizens. UK citizens only have travel passports, the government is not allowed to manage their identity data (or create civil identity documents). For the same reason, even the political preferences and habits of UK citizens are barred from government pursuits. Effectively, this means that elections, even on a European level, are solely a non-enforceable, vocational occurrence in UK public life. This vocational element is put forward by the twenty-three EU member states, who decline to oblige their citizens to cast their vote. But is there enough emphasis on the elementary reason why voting matters in those countries?

Mobilizing 500 million citizens to cast ballots: a Kafkaesque nightmare? From a financial perspective, it is understandable that the actual costs resulting from organizing voting facilities (hiring locales, paying tellers and independent observers) would increase if voting would become a general mandatory issue. That is surely a thing taxpayers unlikely want to hear. Because EU states with over 30-60 million citizens - like Italy, Germany, Spain, the UK, Poland or France - would have to force ballot offices to operate around-the-clock in order to allow every single citizen to vote. And still, their ballots have to be accounted for (or even recounted) in the end. Besides, the punitive measures in the four countries where voting is mandatory, are according to some political parties repulsive and utterly unnecessary.

But the fact remains that only a minor portion of citizens living in twenty-three European countries, (where voting is rather a momentous side-activity that intervenes with public every 5 years) is compelled to exercise the right to cast their vote.

The lack of stimulants pipelined to the European public to exercise this right compromises the entire purpose of the European policymaking process and cuts at the very base of the first European pillar, a ‘Europe of the communities’. The split-up of communities in the lowest levels of society is not helping to consolidate these discrete community identities. A major role for the middle field of representation is reserved to influence policymaking in the interest of the represented community or group. There is no reason to assume that these representational organizations carry no discernable weight in public policy through the vote of their members.

It is sad to think that ‘democratic voting’ is seriously impaired in twenty-three EU countries because of the lack of emphasis on this mandate-authorizing principle that is provided. We must press for stronger citizen-related initiatives that re-invent the attempts at establishing participatory democracy (like attempted with the New Left movement in the 60ies and 80ies), that guarantees a higher level of citizen participation and which fosters the European identity.

The voting outcome is therefore only representative of the electorate that overtly recognizes the personal and civil stakes involved and accepts the ballot as a mechanism to condemn or endorse political decision-shaping and decision-making constituencies (hence the ‘social contract’). That is after all, the target area of the majority of party manifesto’s: the stakes and interests of the ‘modal’ European citizen. Ranging from pensions, job security and schooling to ecology, healthcare and social and private security, I am quite certain there is no one in your family that won’t be affected by the policies drafted and implemented by the European Commission and seconded by the Parliament in the coming five years. I can guarantee it.

Your comments
  • On 10 June 2009 at 03:46, by Kim OJ Replying to: The Purpose and Duty of the European party-led Parliamentary Elections

    To hit an optimistic note, it is actually possible to reverse the trend of declining participation. In Denmark the turnout increased to 59.5% from 47.9% in 2004. There does seem to be a tendency among the European electorate to take a very national approach to the European Parliament, which is why it might properly motivate the turnout, if representation was proportional with participation making every vote count the same no matter which country it was cast.

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