Populism drives voter turnout in CEE

Populism drives voter turnout in CEE

12. 12. 2022 – Lomond

A couple of weeks ago, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) published ‘The Global State of Democracy 2022’, an overview of trends related to democracy and human rights around the world. One area it assessed was electoral participation, which has been in slow, but gradual, decline across most countries in Europe since the mid-1970s.

It’s an important consideration as we head into 2023 because there are three elections scheduled across the EU’s Central & Eastern European member states: a presidential election in the Czech Republic in January, a parliamentary election in Estonia in March and a parliamentary election in Poland in November.

Let’s consider those three countries specifically, then. Based on International IDEA’s analysis, this is what has happened to electoral participation in the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland since the collapse of Communism across the region, with the average for the EU included as a benchmark:

So none of these countries has followed a typical path – since the early ‘90s, but also if you only consider the last 10 years.

Estonia is unusual because it has seen a small increase in electoral participation since 2010. The Czech Republic and Poland are even more interesting because there have been bigger changes in the last few years, with a decline followed by a sharp increase around 2017 in the Czech Republic, and a significant increase from 2015 onwards in Poland.

Is it possible to explain these trends in the Czech Republic and Poland? Yes – it is almost certainly connected to populism.

2017 is the year that ANO won the general election and Andrej Babiš became Prime Minister for the first time. In Poland, Law & Justice regained the presidency in May 2015, and won a majority of seats in the parliamentary election later in the same year.

This is also consistent with the political science literature. Last year, Arndt Leininger from Freie Universität Berlin and Maurits J Meijers from Radboud University in the Netherlands wrote a paper based on evidence from over 40 years of electoral history in 31 European democracies, which asked whether populist parties increased voter turnout. It concluded that while “no effect of populism on turnout was established for Western European countries…we do find robust empirical support for a positive effect of the parliamentary presence of populist parties on turnout in CEE countries.”

Given that Andrej Babiš is running for President in January’s presidential election in the Czech Republic, and Law & Justice will be defending its position in Poland’s parliamentary election in November, chances are therefore that turnout will be higher than historical averages – and that, of course, will have a direct impact on the results.