THE 1999 EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTIONS: Centre-Right Victory or Crisis of Legitimacy?

Article excerpt

Martin Holland discusses the outcome of the recent elections to the European Parliament.

The recent elections to the European Parliament (EP) present a paradox. Public awareness of the Parliament had never been higher and its role never more substantial. The Parliament's legislative power of co-decision has been significantly extended by the Amsterdam Treaty (which came into force in April); in January the EP forced the unprecedented resignation of the European Commission on the grounds of fraud and malpractice; and the importance of European unity was underlined by the Kosovo crisis. And yet, in the 1999 elections for the European Parliament the turnout for Europe's 298 million voters fell below 50 per cent for the first time and was the lowest of the five elections held since direct elections were introduced in 1979. The 5.5 million Euro ($11 million) spent by the Parliament promoting the elections seemed to have little effect.

A familiar criticism of the European Union has been that it is essentially an elite-driven bureaucratic process that has failed to carry with it popular opinion. The elections provide the only regular pan-EU test of citizen attitudes -- referenda are sporadic and not held universally in all fifteen member states. For many, the 1999 results do more than tarnish the EP's image, they are indicative of a fundamental crisis of democratic legitimacy. The election also witnessed a trend back towards centre-right political parties. However, this was less indicative of changing political values than a reflection that the member states (with the exception of Ireland, Spain and Luxembourg) all had left-of-centre governments and that the EP election can also serve as an unofficial referendum on national political issues.

Before examining the result in detail, it has to be realised that the EP election is not a single election. Despite a legal requirement that the election be held according to `a uniform system' and periodic initiatives for harmonisation introduced by the European Parliament, there are significant differences in electoral procedures among the Fifteen. Each member state holds its own ballot, according to its own electoral rules and on its chosen day. Consequently, the EP elections were held on Thursday 10 June in the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands, on Friday 11 June in Ireland, and on Sunday 13 June for the remaining eleven countries. The votes, however, were only counted at the close of polling stations on the Sunday.

For the first time, each of these national EP elections were held under a form of proportional representation, thanks to the United Kingdom finally abandoning its first-past-the-post system (signalling a possible change for national elections too). However, the forms of proportional representation chosen varied considerably. For example, Ireland and Northern Ireland preferred STV systems; Germany adopted a party list system (by Lander and at the federal level) with a 5 per cent threshold; while Spain and France operated fixed national party list systems (with a 5 per cent threshold in France). Sweden and Austria had national lists (and a 4 per cent threshold) but allowed voters to reorder the ranking of candidates on the party list. Denmark allowed votes to be cast for either a party list or individual candidates. The Netherlands operated a national list system with no threshold. Italy was divided into five regional constituencies, but with proportional representation on a national basis with preferential votes coupled with a minimum quota for representation. Greece operated a 3 per cent threshold, and Great Britain was divided into 12 regional constituencies with fixed party lists, independent candidates and no threshold.

Compulsory voting

To heighten the national component of this common election, in three countries (Belgium, Greece and Luxembourg) voting is compulsory. In addition, in Belgium and Luxembourg this year's EP election was held in tandem with fiercely fought national elections, inevitably blurring the distinction between domestic and European election issues in the voters' minds. …