Watch out for turnout in the European elections

Watch out for turnout in the European elections

Amid all the excitement about the election results for parties, also look out for the participation rate. Turnout of voters is an under-estimated data-point in European elections. In 2019, more than half of voters turned out for the first time in 25 years, breaking the trend of declining participation at every election down to the historic low of 42.6% in 2014.

Turnout matters greatly this time for three reasons: the first is that low participation often disadvantages left-leaning and ideologically moderate parties. The populist radical right could gain more seats as a result, especially because voters tend to punish parties in power in European elections.

The second reason is democratic legitimacy. When fewer than a quarter of voters bother to participate – as happened in Slovakia in 2019 – then the European Parliament’s claim to be the voice of the people is in jeopardy. In 2014, only eight countries managed to get more than 50% of their voters to the polls (including Greece, where turnout fell slightly but the overall rate was higher than the average, at 58%).

The third reason is that young people tend to keep voting if they establish the habit early. In 2019, the largest turnout differentials were for the under-25s (+14 percentage points) and 25-39-year-olds (+12 percentage points). This time, 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to vote for the first time in five countries that have lowered the voting age in the hope of raising participation (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece and Malta).

In 2019 the youth vote mobilized largely around climate change and environmental degradation, creating a green wave that raised the European Union’s ambitions to create the European Green Deal. This time around, combatting climate change is still among their top priorities, along with fighting poverty and exclusion, whereas the older generations care more about health and economic growth. Watch out for mobilization of young voters because it matters for the green agenda as well as future participation in European elections.

Heather Grabbe is a senior fellow at Bruegel.

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