Youth Absenteeism in European Parliament Elections

Youth Absenteeism in European Parliament Elections

Young people are abstaining from voting in large numbers for the elections to the European parliament. There are three main reasons that youth are not voting in large numbers for the elections:

  • Absenteeism by young people is related to socio-economic factors.
  • There is a mutual distrust between political parties and youth.
  • Political parties have yet to take into account changes in young people’s forms of political activism and means of communication.

During the last two decades two major political changes took place that can explain part of the youth absenteeism. The first relates to the legitimacy for the process of European integration and the controversies surrounding it. People’s role in decision-making has fallen behind the rapid increase of power that the EU has aquired. The second major political change relates to the general voting decline of the public that can be derived from changes in the forms of political socialisation and activism.

False claims are two often used  to explain the decline of youth participation in elections. The first false claim states that absenteeism is a protest against the EU but studies have shown that “young people are the age group least likely to abstain because of dissatisfaction with the EU”. The second claim is brought forward by rational choice theorists who argue that “when individual votes are not seen to make a difference, citizens prefer to devote their time to other pursuits than to politics”. This might hold some truth since young people may have a harder time “fitting” into a political party today than in the past. Since young people are not disengaged from political issues, just involved in different ways, they can still be brought back to the ballot box.

The gap between youth and political parties keeps widening. In the past you could derive political commitment from looking at party memberships but being a member of a party is rare nowadays and thus the relevance of this indicator has diminished. The cartel party thesis states that “parties are becoming detached from their roots in society and are moving towards being part of the State apparatus”. To emphasize elite selectional practices the political parties have abandoned several of the deliberative and participatory functions.

The political parties are in many ways considered “virtually irrelevant social organisations” (Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke: 2012).This is mainly due to  political parties shift towards applying election-winning techniques that are causing a political apathy in much of the public. The parties are “empasizing mediated and professionalised communication rather than direct mobilization of constituencies”.

Through focusing on election-winning techniques, rather than deliberative and participatory actions, the parties are losing contact with society; causing them to neglect activities shaping young people’s political socialization. Through regulations, as well as the institutionalization of political parties, they have been enabled to shift their political strength and “become relatively independent of their supporters and civil society in general”.

The increasing distance between political institutions and young people can be related to the transformations in social patterns that have emerged. The young generation is not apolitical, but has shifted focus and tends to prefer more clearly defined projects. Young people have shifted their political actions from electoral politics to cause-oriented political action and networking. Political parties still consider their own activities as the uniquely legitimate political sphere and show suspicion towards alternative forms of political action (e.g. occupy movement).

Youth absenteeism creates a vicious circle where parties neglect youth issues and young people react by voting in ever-smaller numbers.

A few recommendations for solving the problem

Young MEP candidates are able to relate and communicate better with other youth. Increasing the quota of young MEP candidates in the elections would reflect a higher focus on youth in politics.

Social media is still used mainly as a media for broadcasting. If parties worked more to engage and network with their followers, instead of repeating slogans, the deliberative dialogues around politics would increase and result in more political engagement. Through engaging followers in dialogue the parties would “turns followers into communication relays towards their peers”.

From targeting “disengaged voters” more directly (instead of focusing purely on election-winning techniques) you will bring more democracy back to politics. Opening up the internal processes of the parties to society will increase participatory values and increase political engagement. Allowing an open exchange of ideas, manifestos and campaigning (inviting citizens outside their organization to public debates) will create more legitimacy to democracy and create more young activists.

This article was derived from the report on ‘Adressing Youth Absenteeism in European Elections‘ (pdf) conducted by the League of the Young Voters and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Featured image: CC-BY-NC-SA, national museum of american history