Vote, vote, vote to keep your job

Observations on European referendums

In cold war Europe, east and west held elections regularly. In the west, what validated democracy was pluralism. In eastern Europe, what counted was turnout. Voters were offered a single candidate. Before 1989, refusing to come and vote was the equivalent of voting "No". Few bothered to risk the consequences of coming in person to cross out the party's chosen candidate. The communist candidate routinely got 99.9 per cent of votes.

Today, everything is supposed to have changed in the new Europe, as eight favoured ex-communist countries march towards a brighter future in Brussels. Yet in each of the four countries that have held referendums paving the way for entry into the European Union - Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania and last weekend Slovakia - all the talk has been about how many voters would make the pilgrimage to the polls and not whether they would endorse joining the EU.

After decades of isolation behind the Iron Curtain, "rejoining Europe" was a popular slogan in 1989, but 14 years on, the EU has offered less generous terms of admission than many easterners had hoped for. Euro enthusiasm has waned. Only the political class in the new Europe has retained its enthusiasm for getting seats at the European Parliament in Strasbourg or on the European Commission in Brussels.

In Lithuania, the media coverage resembled a throwback to communist-era blanket appeals for participation. Special buses were laid on and rules restricting voters to their own local polling station waived. The vote was spread over two days, which gave the authorities the op-portunity to assess the turnout overnight and take what President Rolandas Paksas called "special measures", if necessary, to boost participation above the 50 per cent level required to validate the poll.

By the end of the first day of voting, only 30.6 per cent of registered voters had cast their ballots. Television broadcast urgent appeals from political leaders. Priests were instructed to get the faithful from church to ballot box on the Sunday. A supermarket even offered a premium to shoppers who came with evidence of having voted.

Slovakia's referendum campaign was just as one-sided, with sports stars and media faces lining up with the political class to urge everyone to vote. Although Slovak rules did not allow for a report on the first day's turnout, a chatroom on a pro-EU website sent out an alarm signal that only 14 per cent had voted. The government's rumour machine countered with a more respectable estimate of 25 per cent. But it felt obliged to urge municipal workers and other state employees to get out and vote. Slovaks over 30 can remember when not voting meant the sack, and in a country with 20 per cent unemployment, few state employees needed another hint.

In both Lithuania and Slovakia, the blue balloons went up in celebration as soon as the polls closed and election officials reported more than half of all voters had done their civic duty. No one bothered to wait for the results of how people had actually voted.

In Lithuania, 91 per cent voted "Yes" on an official turnout of 67 per cent. Only 52 per cent of Slovaks made it to the polls, but more than 92 per cent voted "Yes".

For new Europeans, participation in the ritual of voting is replacing real choice of options as the definition of politics across Europe today.

The author is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford