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Voter Turnout Will Decide Europe’s Fate

With voter turnout in European elections at historic lows, populist and anti-establishment parties are hoping to win outsize parliamentary representation later this month. Like the Trump campaign in the 2016 US presidential election, they will focus on suppressing turnout among key constituencies and mobilizing their own base.

STOCKHOLM – European voter turnout is in deep crisis. Since the early 2000s, the share of voters in national elections has fallen to 66% on average, which means that the birthplace of democracy now ranks below average globally. The situation is even worse in European Parliament elections: in 2014, turnout was 42.6%, almost 20 points below what it was in 1979. Only in countries with compulsory voting, such as Belgium and Luxembourg, has turnout remained high.

Despite all the attention paid to climate marches and other youth-led political movements, a new cohort of young voters is unlikely to change this trend. In the last European elections, 72% of voters below the age of 24 abstained. Among Finns, that rate was 90%; among Slovaks it was 94%. According to opinion polls, only 21% of youth declare they are very likely to vote in this week’s European Parliament election.

There was a time when European voter-turnout trends didn’t particularly matter. European politicians cared more about their own share of the electoral pie than its overall size. And because the mainstream parties were all close to the political center, voter abstention at the extremes affected them all about the same. But now that populist parties have made gains by offering disaffected voters a new home, the calculus has changed.

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