The European Parliament’s campaign to block a shift to the right at next month’s elections might just work in CEE

The European Parliament’s campaign to block a shift to the right at next month’s elections might just work in CEE

20. 05. 2024 – Lomond

Most of you will have seen the campaign that the European Parliament is running ahead of next month’s European elections to encourage people to vote  – in particular, the video of grandparents talking to their grandchildren about how democracy is fragile and how important it is that they make their voices heard. It concludes with the message: “Use your vote or others will decide for you.”

The video is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an emotional, powerful piece of content – not your typical piece of EU communications! Second, there are several voices from Central &  Eastern Europe (CEE), including grandmothers who lived through the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Timișoara uprising in 1989.

The video’s objective is very clear, and we have written about it before: a consensus has been building for some time that the European elections could result in a major shift to the right, with populist parties gaining seats across the EU. In January, for example, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an international think tank, published a report predicting that “anti-European populists” were likely to top the polls in nine member states (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Slovakia) and come second or third in nine more (Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Sweden).

Based on the content of the video, the European Parliament has drawn two conclusions from this:

a) that low turnout will benefit these “anti-European populists”, so efforts need to be made to encourage people to get out and vote.

b) that younger voters are the top priority audience because they are much more likely to vote for pro-European, non-populist parties.

In CEE specifically, where turnout at the 2019 European elections was low in most countries, this raises two important questions:

  1. Are the European Parliament’s conclusions about low turnout benefitting “anti-European populists” correct in this region?
  2. Is there any evidence that the campaign is working in CEE?

Let’s explore each question in turn:

  1. Are the European Parliament’s conclusions about low turnout benefitting “anti-European populists” correct in this region?

The European Parliament will, of course, be most concerned about the rise of “anti-European populists” in the biggest member states, as they contribute the largest number of MEPs. In CEE, that means Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Hungary (the only member states in the region which will elect more than 20 MEPs next month):

What impact is turnout likely to have in these four countries?

- Poland: There is general consensus that low turnout will benefit Law & Justice, whose core voter base – an older demographic, outside the big cities – can be relied upon to vote. Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who is aiming to drive overall turnout as high as possible, certainly seems to see it that way.

- Romania: AUR and SOS Romania remain the main populist parties in Romania and the conventional view is that a low turnout would benefit them – as it did in the 2020 parliamentary election. As the Rector of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) in Bucharest warned earlier this year, “[AUR] cannot be an option for more than 6-8% of the Romanian electorate, but this percentage increases with a low turnout. With a 50% turnout, it can go up to 12-14%; with a turnout below 35%, it can go up to 18-20%.”

- Hungary: The situation in Hungary is similar to Poland – it is almost certain that the governing Fidesz party would benefit from a low turnout, as it has the most committed vote base and the best organised network to mobilise them.

- Czech Republic: In the Czech Republic, the context is different. Traditionally, low turnout in the European elections has benefitted mainstream centre-right parties – those currently in the governing coalition. However, as things stand, the main opposition party, ANO, is well out in front in the opinion polls, with public support leaching away from the governing coalition. Given that context, a high turnout might actually favour both ANO and the right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, with people motivated to vote in the European elections as a way of expressing their opinion of the current government.

It is not our intention here to get into a debate around definitions such as “populist”, “anti-European” and “Eurosceptic”, and to which parties they should be applied. However, consider the issue from the perspective of the EU, which has been in protracted battles with both Law & Justice in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary over rule of law concerns, withholding funds from both countries. In the Czech Republic, ANO’s leader, Andrej Babiš, was the subject of a conflict of interest investigation by the European Commission and has become increasingly critical of Brussels (earlier this year, he accused the European Commission of attempting to influence national elections through the allocation of EU funds – effectively coming out in support of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Robert Fico in Slovakia and Mateusz Morawiecki in Poland).

So whether or not you consider Law & Justice, Fidesz and ANO “anti-European populists”, it does seem clear that they are not parties the EU institutions will be keen to do well in next month’s elections. It’s also clear that, in three of the four CEE countries we have looked at, low turnout would benefit parties that fall into this category.

  1. Is there any evidence that the campaign is working in CEE?

There have been two recent Eurobarometer surveys of public opinion across the EU that shine some light on this second question.

First, the Spring 2024 Eurobarometer survey, which was published in April based on more than 26,000 interviews with voters across the EU. One of the questions asked: “If the next European elections were to be held next week, how likely would you be to vote in these elections?” Respondents were asked to use a scale from 1 to 10, where ‘1’ meant “not at all likely” and ‘10’ meant “very likely”. The same question was asked ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections as well, and it’s helpful to compare the two results, and also to see how they match up with actual turnout five years ago:

So, while it’s important to be cautious about the results of public opinion surveys (as evidenced by the discrepancy between the number of people who said they would vote in the 2019 European elections and the percentage that actually did so), this is encouraging for those looking to increase turnout. In all four CEE countries, more people are indicating that they will vote this time than was the case five years ago – significantly more in the cases of Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic. This should, based on the evidence from five years ago, lead to higher turnout next month than we saw in 2019.

The second relevant Eurobarometer came out even more recently – the ‘Youth and Democracy’ report, which was published on 13 May (Flash Eurobarometer 545) based on interviews with EU citizens up to the age of 30. One of the questions was: “Do you intend to vote in the upcoming European elections?” The results for the four CEE countries we are considering were as follows:

It’s not an exact comparison because the questions were not identical, but it’s interesting to compare the number of “total likely voters” from the Spring 2024 Eurobarometer with the numbers of young people who said “Yes, I am eligible and intend to vote” in the more recent survey above. For the EU as a whole, it suggests that a lower percentage of young people are intending to vote: 64% vs 71% for the population as a whole.

However, in three of the four CEE markets, the numbers are more encouraging for those who want to see a high turnout of young voters in next month’s European elections:

- Poland: 69% of young people are saying they intend to vote vs 70% for the voting population as a whole.

- Romania: 78% of young people are saying they intend to vote vs 74% for the voting population as a whole.

- Czech Republic: 56% of young people are saying they intend to vote vs 58% for the voting population as a whole.

Hungary is the outlier, where 51% of young people are saying they intend to vote vs 70% for the voting population as a whole.

So, based on these recent surveys, while the situation is not uniform across the largest CEE countries, there are some positive signs that we can expect to see an improvement in turnout next month compared to the European elections in 2019 – and that we will see more young people voting than we did five years ago.

If that’s what happens, it could help limit the shift to the right that so many people are predicting – and the European Parliament’s communications campaign will be viewed as a success.