Review of campaign methods needed to boost voter turnout, says Wallstrom

 

EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER Margot Wallstrom has called for a radical shake-up of how future European election campaigns are conducted by EU states, to try to boost voter turnout.

She has also criticised her own political family, the Party of European Socialists (PES), for failing to present a rival candidate for the plum post of European Commission president prior to the elections. “In a democracy it would provide for a much better discussion the more candidates you have, and it would make it easier for citizens to see the alternatives . . . That is not a personal attack on my boss but it’s a general comment,” said Ms Wallstrom, who added she was disappointed turnout slipped to a record low of 43 per cent.

Divisions between the main Socialist parties in Europe meant the group could not coalesce around a single candidate, with Socialists parties in Britain, Spain and Portugal backing centre-right candidate José Manuel Barroso for a second term as president. This failure has been highlighted as one reason voters showed little interest in the elections despite a major effort by the EU institutions to raise voter awareness.

“The more people feel these are deals done behind closed doors and already decided and it doesn’t matter what they say, the more difficult it will be to mobilise them in referendums or elections,” said Ms Wallstrom, who as commissioner for communication plays a key role in increasing citizens’ awareness of the union.

She said the low turnout should not be blamed on the EU executive or herself personally, a criticism she said was “absurd”. The election campaigns were fought locally and member states had the primary responsibility for raising awareness, she added.

She said some member states had turned against the EU and simply did not discuss Europe in regular national political discourse. Without doing the groundwork beforehand, it is impossible to tune people into European elections in a three-week campaign, she said.

Ms Wallstrom, who begins a two-day visit to Ireland today, said many EU states needed to change how they organised European elections. Early voting and internet voting should be considered to boost turnout. We should study how 11 states increased turnout in these elections, she said.

“One thing that should be done – and I’m surprised you cannot do it in Ireland – is vote early. In my country, you could vote from May 20th by going to a post office or municipal office. You could even enter an election bus going around to the suburbs . . . You can use e-voting in Estonia and that increased the voter turnout dramatically,” she said.

On a previous trip by her to Ireland, one young person told her she couldn’t vote because it would have meant going back to their home constituency, she said. “Come on, this is one thing we expect all member states to do: modernise and facilitate voting,” she added. She said the process of choosing commissioners could also be opened up to public debate by involving national parliaments. There should be hearings in every member state and candidates should be questioned by national parliamentarians, she added.

Ms Wallstom also dismissed the suggestion Eurosceptic parties had boosted their turnout in the elections, citing the dismal performance of Libertas. “It can be very easy to say no but much more difficult to present a credible programme to go forward,” she replied when asked about Libertas’s failure to win many seats.

On the prospects for a Yes vote in the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, she said everyone wanted the debate on the treaty to come to an end. “It has gone on way too long. We want to concentrate on issues that affect people, like climate change.”