Can Europe Make It?

Who decides how European elections work: the party or the electorate?

There may be only one European election, but how the candidates in each country are elected can be quite different. Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Karen Melchior
16 February 2014

Candidate posters for the 2009 European elections. wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.

European elections: a primer

There is only one European election, however it is held on different days and according to different versions of proportional representative voting for each country. Proportional representation (“PR”) voting with open lists allows for more influence on which candidate gets elected, giving voters the choice between personalities as well as between the political parties.

This open list system is used in a large number of EU member states: Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Malta. However, for example in France, Germany and the UK the countries have opted for a closed-list, where voters are only given the choice between the parties, but not the individual candidates. “Closed-list PR” moves the competition between candidates from the same party back from an open election campaign, engaging with the voters, to an earlier stage in the election process: the party selection process.

Accordingly, the power of who gets voted into Parliament is moved from the electorate to the political parties. In a closed-list system there is little incentive for individual candidates to communicate directly with their voters. Most politicians still have a certain measure of rationality left, in spite of running for office, and so to get elected, they concentrate on campaigning inside the political parties in order to get as high up on the list as possible.

As a Danish candidate, I am standing against nearly 100 other candidates from 7 different lists, mainly parties, but there is still one cross-party list Folkebevægelsen mod EU, with an anti-European agenda.

Are we moving towards a post-democratic society?

In recent decades there has been a decline in both party membership and trust in political parties, with a perceived change in energy and innovation away from the democratic arena and into small elite circles and narrower single-cause interest groups. This has been described as a post-democratic society by political sociologist Colin Crouch: “A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”, see interview with Colin Crouch from 2013 on the LSE Europe Policy and Politics blog (europpblog).

Of the then 27 EU member states, only Austria and Greece have more than 10 percent of national electorates who are party members. Denmark is below but close to the average of 4.7 percent. I recommend checking out Ingrid van Biezen’s 2011 study of party membership rates in Europe, co-authored with Peter Mair and Thomas Poguntke.

The party membership percentage of the electorate in Germany, France and the UK is well below the European average at less than 3 percent, so only less than 3 percent of the electorate have a direct say in who gets selected to the European Parliament, and this is only if we presume that every party member gets a vote on the matter and the party is open about the process. This is not always the case, for more information see Jon Worth’s labourlist comment on the selection process in the British Labour Party.

District size, open vs closed ballots, and their influence on European elections

Denmark, with regards to the European Elections, is quite a small country with only 13 seats in the parliament; however we do have a rather large district size with an open list. This should create a greater incentive for candidates to cultivate a personal vote, because the larger the district, the greater the need to differentiate between candidates from the same party, according to Simon Hix and Sara Hagemann’s paper from 2008.

However the large districts also incur the risk of dominance by the personalities of a few high profile candidates rather than the policy positions and performance of all the candidates and the parties they stand for. In their aforementioned paper, Hagemann and Hix recommend that member states like Denmark with an open ballot and with between 10 and 20 MEPs elected in a single national constituency, should break the constituency up into several smaller sub-national districts, of between 4 and 8 MEPs, in order to counter this tendency.

The statistics of the past Danish European Parliamentary elections confirm the tendency to focus on a few candidates rather than the political parties. Nearly 80 percent of Danes voted for an individual candidate, however this was mainly for the top of the list, the lijsttrekker (as it would be called in the Netherlands, loosely translated as “list puller”). Thus with the current election district size and open ballots, it is very important who the parties choose as head of their lists for the European elections in Denmark.

This logic is also played out within my own party, where our lijsttrekker is Morten Helveg Petersen, a former member of our national parliament, who is resuming his political career by running for the European Parliament. His family is the Danish Social Liberal Party’s equivalent to the Kinnock family in the UK’s Labour Party. His experience, network and name recognition make him a strong candidate for the party in an election focused on a small number of candidates that need to be able to get themselves across on a national level in an election which most media find either dull or complicated or both.

What does this mean for me as a candidate and my campaign in Denmark?

I want to work for a democratic, modern and progressive Europe, where policy and democracy is open for us as citizens and this starts during my campaign. Being further down on the list, I can focus on the policy areas that are of most concern to me personally. I want to focus on what I am passionate about, as this will make it easier for me to talk with conviction about these issues.

My decision to sign up to a political party and stand as a candidate was born out of frustration at seeing the above sorts of statistics and debates. Having lived in the UK for three years and followed the UK party political system, I was optimistic and Danish enough to think that things couldn’t be that bad in Denmark. I wanted to be a responsible citizen and become a member in order to have a look for myself, and largely, I have had my expectations confirmed.

After my return to Denmark, I became active and volunteered for posts of responsibility, resulting in being encouraged to run for the European Parliament. Being an outsider to the party-political structures, I was selected with the help of personal supporters rather than the support of a regional constituency. Crowd sourcing support for my candidacy online as well as within the party structures allowed me to collect twice as many votes as needed to allow me to stand as a candidate and to discover friends and online acquaintances, who were party members. I was voted in by the party conference as number 5 on our list of candidates.

I decided to get involved in politics out of frustration with party politics and a desire to somehow fill the vacuous shell of the party political structure. I believe that representative democracy with democratic checks and balances as well as the protection of minorities is the best solution for our democracy. Furthermore, it is true that “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”: politicians placed in power by the current political system will be unlikely to change it. The best option for me was to use the party political structure to stand as a candidate and in my campaign to try and break down the barriers to influence between the electorate and party politics.

I try to do this by communicating openly about what I am doing as well as listening both to voters and taking advice from experts and interest groups. I work hard to engage directly with voters as much as I can. Online social networks are important for me as places where I can have an open dialogue with voters, which is also visible to people from outside the conversation. As I also strongly believe this should be as European an election as possible, I cooperate with like-minded European politicians on a number of issues and this is also helped by social media and networks.

All of this can only make a difference for me because I am standing in a country with an open ballot, and so distinguishing myself from the other candidates can make a difference to my result at the election. If we want an open European democracy, we should work towards electoral systems where the voters get as much influence as possible on who gets elected. If not, we really cannot complain about lack of voter participation and voters moving towards protest-voting.

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