Voter Participation and Party-Group Fortunes in European Parliament Elections, 1979-1999: A Cross-National Analysis

By Pacek, Alexander C.; Radcliff, Benjamin | Political Research Quarterly, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Voter Participation and Party-Group Fortunes in European Parliament Elections, 1979-1999: A Cross-National Analysis


Pacek, Alexander C., Radcliff, Benjamin, Political Research Quarterly


Scholars have addressed the relationship between voter participation and party electoral fortunes for some time. Specifically, a number of studies postulate that left-of-center parties are the primary beneficiaries of higher rates of voter turnout. This research note extends this argument to a classic "low turnout" environment: the elections to the European Parliament. Using data from 11 members of the European Union between 1979 and 1999, we test the turnout-party vote linkage through pooled cross-national time series analysis. We find that, indeed, increased turnout benefits the left party groups in the European Parliament. We conclude with some implications for this finding.

The salience of the European Union as both a political entity and a subject of scholarly interest has increased dramatically in recent years. As a consequence, so has interest in the Union's only popularly elected body, the European Parliament. At the start of the new millenium, the EU and its parliament stand embroiled in a host of issues ranging from the impact of globalization on its member states, to trade disputes with the United States over genetically modified foods and Caribbean sugar, to the single currency, mad cow disease, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Chechnya, the proposed inclusion of former communist states, and the rise of the far-right in Austria. As the ideal of one Europe grows closer, the role of the European Parliament (EP) can only expand as well. Indeed, as Schulz and Konig (2000) document, the HP's legislative activity has increased steadily since 1979, a trend that will certainly continue.

Oddly, though, as the role and power of the EU (along with scholarly interest) is expanding-and thus the relevance to ordinary citizens of the workings of EP increasing-participation in elections for the EP, low to begin with, has been declining. Indeed, the record low turnout in the 1999 EP elections drew further attention to the organization's growing list of troubles (Evans 1999a, 1999b; Ogilvie 1999). Declining turnout in EP elections has been the cause both of lamentations by proponents of integration and a locus of scholarly research. Much of this has focused on the possible reasons for this decline, ranging from factors related to each country's electoral system to those more related to the European Union itself (Mattila 2002; Franklin 2001; Blondel, Sinnott, and Svensson 1998; Franklin, van der Eijk, and Oppenhuis 1996; Schmitt, and Mannheimer 1991). By contrast, the political consequences of declining turnout have received little attention. To be sure, the fact that the 1999 European Parliament elections witnessed both record-low turnout and the worst electoral losses for left parties in twenty years did not escape notice among political observers. There seemed little consensus, though, on whether these events were coincidence or cause and effect (Partridge 1999).

In this brief research note, we offer a systematic analysis of the issue of whether, and to what extent, the rate of electoral participation affects party vote shares. Specifically we address how shifts in voter turnout affected vote shares for particular party groups, from 1979 to 1999. Party-groups are at the core of decision-making in the EP, and at least in theory, citizens exercise a measure of governance over policy-making through the competing proposals of the party-groups. We adopt a cross-national, pooled time-series approach in assessing turnout's impact on these groups' electoral fortunes.

EVIDENCE FOR TURNOUT'S IMPACT ON THE VOTE

The turnout-party vote linkage has been the subject of serious scholarly debate since the early 1980s. The traditional argument is straightforward. As Radcliff (1994) summarizes it, lower- and working-class citizens form the traditional core voters of left parties, and tend to vote at lower rates than their better-off counterparts, who vote at higher rates, and more consistently. Interelection shifts in turnout primarily represent increases in turnout among "lower status" voters, who are in turn more likely to vote disproportionately for left-ofcenter parties. …

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