Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Voters staying away in droves

10 Eastern European countries have lined up to join the EU, but increasing voter apathy and boredom could scuttle the whole process, especially in Poland

By Ian Geoghegan  /  REUTERS , BUDAPEST

It was a date with destiny. And they didn't show up.

East Europeans, by failing to turn out for EU membership referendums, have flirted with being dumped from the union even before consummating their accession -- big Yes votes in several countries have nearly been legally scuppered by low turnout.

Decades of communism and pallid pro-EU government campaigns have been blamed. Now it is the turn of the Poles to worry that much the biggest of the 10 countries due to join the EU next May could upset the entire process -- if less than half the voters bother to turn up to have their say in a June 7 and June 8 referendum.

"I am not calm about the turnout," Prime Minister Leszek Miller said. "I believe we have to fight for every vote."

As elsewhere, there is little prospect of a Polish No. Yet if turnout is below 50 percent, a Yes would be invalid. The task of ratifying accession to the EU should then fall to parliament -- but a legal challenge could thwart that "Plan B."

The apathy is widely blamed on pro-EU governments' late and lackluster campaigns that have failed to spark voters to embrace an opportunity their leaders portray as finally casting aside decades of totalitarianism, poverty and insecurity.

Turnout in Slovakia's ballot last Friday was so slow that the pro-reform government made an appeal on national television for voters to show up on Saturday, the second day of polling.

The referendum scraped through with 52 percent of Slovaks bothering to turn out, just above a 50 percent minimum, narrowly saving a vote in which a massive 93 percent said Yes to the EU. In Hungary last month, just 46 percent bothered to cast a ballot.

Turn out? turn off

Many say the ruling elites in states that have only enjoyed a short period of democracy since the 1989 to 1990 fall of communism have been complacent and focused on the historic big picture rather than explaining how it may improve people's daily lives.

In rural areas and unemployment blackspots, many Hungarians feel let down by failed promises of a better life after communism and stayed away believing the EU offers little better.

But across the eight ex-communist EU candidates, the No campaigns have lacked coherence, a factor that has also made for low turnouts since the overall result has rarely been in doubt.

Slovak sociologist Miroslav Kusy said many in central and eastern Europe were unused to having democracy at their fingertips, after half a century of fascist or communist rule.

"Until now, we've had it in our genes that things are decided without us," he said.

Pal Csaky, Slovak deputy prime minister for EU integration, blamed indifference and anti-government protest votes.

Polish legal challenge

Opinion polls in Poland show about 74 percent support for EU entry among those intending to vote and 64 percent of adults say they plan to vote. Yet there is still real concern that even more switched-off voters will just stay away on the day.

Political analysts say the fact that Poland, like some other states, has a "Plan B" where parliament can ratify EU entry if the referendum fails, signals to voters they need not bother.

"Slovaks knew that if less than half turned out and the referendum failed, parliament was going to push it through anyway," said Czech political commentator Milan Slezak.

Priming a bombshell, opponents of EU entry have pressed Poland's Constitutional Tribunal to rule next week on whether parliament really can rescue the vote if the referendum fails.

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