Average turnout across the European Union may have been just over 50 percent last May, the highest for two decades. But Bulgaria returned a record low for the country of just 32.64 percent.
This does not mean that political apathy was limited to Bulgaria though: according to European Parliament data, the EP elections saw an even lower turnout in Slovakia (22.74%), the Czech Republic (28.72%), Slovenia (28.89%), Croatia (29.86%) and Portugal (30.75%).
In the wake of Brexit, a relatively low turnout was probably understandable for the UK (36.90%), but what’s more striking is the general contrast between eastern and western Europe. Voter turnout even in Hungary and Poland, where relations with the EU are directly at stake in national politics, was lower than the EU average (at 43.36% and 45.68% respectively), while Lithuania (53.48%) and Romania (51.07%) are the only eastern European countries where it was slightly higher. Western member states tended to achieve somewhere around or above the EU average (50.62%), with Germany reaching 61.38%, and Belgium and Luxembourg topping the table with over 80 per cent (voting is mandatory in both countries).
Thus the eurosceptic, nationalist and populist discourse of recent years has largely done its job – not only in the UK but also in eastern Europe: it has discouraged citizen participation. Many eastern Europeans now believe that their participation in the European elections is meaningless: ‘Brussels/the great powers dictate everything’, ‘small peoples/countries have no say.’ This resignation, of course, is partly linked to the European Union itself, since the European Parliament does not offer its citizens true political representation.
In contrast to France and Italy, where the relatively high turnout benefitted Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini, the low turnout in Bulgaria was bad for the populists. As I predicted, of the four nationalist populist parties currently represented in the Bulgarian Parliament, only the most moderate – the VMRO (Internal Macedonia Revolutionary Organization) – won two seats (out of Bulgaria’s 17 in the European Parliament). In formal terms, the results of the elections were a complete victory for pro-European forces in Bulgaria.
The combination of euro-apathy, as manifested in the low turnout, and euro-support, as manifested in the results of the European elections in Bulgaria, is another version of something Boryana Dimitrova has aptly termed the ‘paradox of public opinion’1: whereas, on average, over 70 percent of respondents to a 2018 survey in Bulgaria believed populist propaganda theses such as ‘The Bulgarians are treated by the EU as second-rate people’ and ‘Bulgaria’s foreign policy is dictated by Brussels’, almost as many, 68.9 percent, supported the country’s chosen geopolitical orientation within the EU.
As a practical rational choice, Europe seems to have no alternative for Bulgarians, but at the emotional level, the propaganda of the Kremlin and local populists has succeeded in undermining respondents’ identification with the selfsame Europe. As for why euroscepticism is growing at an emotional level, and which attitudes and stereotypes serve as the basis for this, especially in the countries of what used to be eastern Europe: that is another matter.
Even so, it is the local oligarchs who have a stake in and stoke media dissemination and generation of euroscepticism – not so much in its vehement form, which attacks people’s practical, rational pro-European choices and, in order to assert itself, leads towards authoritarianism, as in its milder form, the one that tells you, ‘Leave things in God’s hands, there is nothing that you can do!’ It is this form that seems most dangerous to me.
This is because such euroscepticism creates conditions for state capture – for governance without civic resistances, behind the facade of ostensibly democratic institutions. This type of euroscepticism, inflated to the point of political cynicism in the most general sense, has seriously infected both the media and the pro-European mainstream parties in Bulgaria. I am wondering whether euroscepticism as the ideological packaging of the oligarchy, at least in eastern Europe, won’t change its form and move away from almost authoritarian ‘neighbourhood bullying’ in the style of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, towards balanced ‘peasant guile’ à la Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.
This article is published in association with Eurozine.
Eurozine describes itself as “a network of European cultural journals, linking up more than 80 partner journals as well as associated magazines and institutions from nearly all European countries.”