Jocellyn's Blog

Voting to European Parliament in post-communist countries

This paper addresses the problem of low turnout and high defection in European Parliament elections in post-communist countries, and compares these countries with the older member states in the European Union. It is based on three articles dealing with mechanisms explaining why people vote differently in national election and European Parliament (EP) election.

First article by Marsh and Mikhaylov regards Second order theory. This model, originally by Reif and Shmitt, suggests that EP elections are influenced by national elections because there is the same party system in both, and also the same issues. In EP elections the smaller parties gains and the national governing parties lose regardless their size. There is also a lower turnout than in the national elections.

Marsh and Mikhaylov concern individual voting behaviour, particularly seen in vote switching.

Voters perceive EP elections as less important, because there is no government in stake. For that reason people often show their sincere voting preference because they do not have to make a strategic choices like during national elections (where strategic reasons may lead voter to select the party which has the biggest chance to get into the parliament instead the party which is closest to his ideology). This we can see as a switch from strategic voting at national level to sincere voting at European level. But there is also a switch in an opposite direction, when voters voted sincerely and then became dissatisfied they could switch to insincere vote just to send a message to their party.

Second article by Hobolt, Spoon and Tilley brings an alternative explanation of why big parties, and especially governing parties, lose votes at EP elections. They do not reject the Second order model but reveal a new factor which can play a role: European integration issue. According to them, governing parties are almost always more pro-European that the voters thus the euro-sceptical voters are more likely to switch to different party than a governing one or to not vote at all at the EP elections. This fact is strengthened by media. When the campaign is euro-sceptical, the chance to defect from governing parties is bigger.

Last article by Weber sees EP elections from the perspective of domestic issues. His theory use strategies of Exit and Voice (by Hirschman) and applies it into voting behaviour. When the voter is dissatisfied with performance of his party he can choose between switching to another party (exit) or trying to express his dissatisfaction (voice). There is a clear correlation between chances for Exit and Voice and timing of EP elections. In the mid-term (between two national elections) there is a biggest chance for exit or protest voting for governing parties .

All of these articles give us a ground theory for evaluating voting behaviour in the post-communist countries. There is a clear importance of individual strategies and positions as well as opinions about European integration which play a big role in these countries and there is also timing, which matter when it comes to EP elections. I argue european integration issue is the most important of all. The voters do not want to vote on EP elections because their attitude towards integration is too distant from parties´ position.

Post-communist countries which joined EU in 2004 are a strange case. They have generally lower turnout in EP elections than old member states and Second order theory does not seem so clear for them as for old members.

According to Weber, post-communist countries show less core voting and more alienation but on the other hand also more voice. Less core voting and more alienation could be explained by results from survey by Hobolt, Spoon and Tilley. “The countries with the biggest difference between voter and party position on European integration are the new accession countries”. The voters‘ position about European integration is often distant to this position of the governing parties. Core voting means voting the same party several times and alienation means leaving from the whole party system and not voting at all.

We can see that European integration issue could be the reason why voters from post-communist countries defect from governing parties or not come to election at all more often than voters from older countries. There are other evidences for that statement. David R. Cameron claims that there is a lower trust in the national governments in post-communist countries and also high level of ambivalence and scepticism about EU membership. Ambivalence about EU membership can lead to lower turnout and lower trust in the national government can lead into alienation, especially when the EP elections are held in the mid term when people are usually most disappointed with the government´s performance.

We can also claim, that old member states have a much longer tradition in international cooperation, some of them from 1952 when Treaty of Paris came into force. Most states joined EU later but they were still a part of an international negotiations. Post-communist parties on the other hand had a long history of communist isolation. In my opinion there could be connection between living in this close environment and short experience with EU membership and low EP election turnout.

That could be also a reason why old member states, even though they also have a gap between voters’ and parties’ attitudes towards European integration, show less alienation and more core voting. They had significant longer time to adjust to the European Union and the question of deepening European integration could not be so delicate to them, as for new members.

Situation with the high portion of voice could be seen as a contradictory towards this paper, but according to Weber, voice strategy could also be voting different party to punish voter´s regular choice. That would fit into my hypothesis that post-communist voters vote differently on EP elections, because of the reasons presented above.

In sum we can say that because post-communist countries have lower trust i governments and parties in general, because they are more euro-skeptical, have little experiences with European cooperation and have the biggest gap between voters’ and parties’ attitudes towards European integration, they have lower turnout in EP election and often defect from national governing parties.


Hobolt, Sara B., Jae-Jae Spoon, and James Tilley. “A Vote Against Europe? Explaining Defection at the 1999 and 2004 European Parliament Elections.” British Journal of Political Science 39 (2009): 93-115.

Weber, Till. ‘Exit, Voice, and Cyclicality: A Micrologic of Midterm Effects in European Parliament Elections.’ American Journal of Political Science 55: (2011): 907-922.

Marsh, Michael and Slava Mikhaylov “European Parliament Elections and EU Governance” Living Reviews in European Governance 5, (2010), 4.

CAMERON, David R. The Challenges of EU Accession for Post-Communist Europe. Yale University, 2004. Working Paper Series #60. Center for European Studies.


comments powered by Disqus