Indicator 2: Free and fair elections

How far and how equally can citizens exercise public control through free and fair voting?


Equal access to media for political advertising contributes to free and fair elections.

(Photo: Colourbox)  

Amongst measures which could be relevant here are the following: electoral systems used for European elections (2.1); the use of open and closed lists in European elections (2.2); party finance and European elections (2.3); regulation of the media and European elections (2.4); the length of time between national elections and European elections (2.5); and other elections on the same day as European elections (2.6).

2.1 Electoral systems used for European elections

Table 2.1. simply compares the electoral systems used by different member states for European elections. There has been much academic debate on the question of whether it really matters that member states do not have one uniform procedure for European elections. There are at least three ways in which it may matter.

First, variation across member states in thresholds – or the minimum number of votes any one party needs in order to win any seats at all – will affect the relative probability of small parties gaining representation in the EP.

Second, member states vary in whether they have open or closed lists or some compromise between the two. Closed lists give political parties complete control over the order in which their candidates are elected. Open lists allow voters to change the order in which candidates from different parties are elected. The difference between the two systems is likely to affect the behaviour of candidates in European elections, and the nature of representation in the European Parliament itself. Those who are elected on closed lists have more incentive to follow party policy and party disciplines. Those who are elected on open lists have more freedom – and more incentive – to appeal directly to voters in ways of their own choosing.

Third, the method of allocating seats affects the manner in which the last seat in each member state is allocated. This might sound rather technical, but it is actually of some importance. Several member states only receive a handful of seats in the EP. Thus there often has to be a large rounding up or rounding down of votes in deciding which party gets to receive last seat to be allocated.

Table 2.1. Comparative table of electoral systems member states employ in European elections

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2.2 Use of open and closed lists in European elections

Given the importance of open versus closed lists Table 2.2. provides a simple summary of the percentage of MEPs elected to the 2004-9 Parliament under different arrangements.

Table 2.2. Total number of MEPs elected under different systems in thre 2009 European elections

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2.3 Party finance and European elections

Party finance has become a central concern for representative democracy. The core question relates to the autonomy of the representative process itself. Are public representative bodies sufficiently independent of private forms of power to be able to regulate the latter if that is what democratically elected representatives want to do? One obvious difficulty is that the representative process can simply be ‘bought’. After all representatives do not just depend on citizens for votes. They also depend on donors to give them money to fight their election campaigns.

Broadly there are three problems in defining arrangements for party finance: (a) Should there be limits on how much any one party or candidate can spend? (b) Should there be limits on how much any one donor can contribute? And (c) should public bodies themselves contribute to the financing of parties and candidates? The latter is a thorny issue. It is perhaps the most effective way of giving representatives freedom from private influence. On the other hand, the basis for allocating official funding is usually the performance of a party in the last election. Thus official funding has a bias towards incumbents.

Table 2.3. summarises the results of some comparative research conducted by Wilhelm Lehmann for a European Parliament study into the different rules for the financing of parties in member states. Arrangements appear to be rather patchy. Not many member states have rules that cover all of the three categories mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Table 2.3. Party finance rules for European elections

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2.4 Regulation of the media and European elections

A further determinant of whether there is a level playing field in elections is access to the media. Table 2.4. provides a summary – again based on a study by Lehmann for the European Parliament – of national regulations governing media access during European elections. There is variation across member states both (a) in how far the media are obliged to allocate time to candidates and parties in European elections and (b) in provisions that are made for equality of access.

Table 2.4. Regulations covering media coverage in European elections

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2.5 Length of time between national elections and European elections

European elections are often said to be second-order in nature. That is to say, that political parties largely contest them on domestic issues, and voters likewise use them to express their views on domestic matters. If this interpretation is correct, it means that European elections are not really about the institution that is in fact being elected: the European Parliament.

One factor that is likely to shape just how far European elections are second order is the length of time since the last national election in each member state and the length of time until the next national election is due. Thus if a national election has only recently been held, participation in European elections may well be low. If, on the other hand, a national election is due in the near future, participation in European elections may even be higher than it would otherwise have been. On the other hand, the imminence of a national election may only make it more likely that the European elections will be dominated by national issues. Table 2.5 summarises the length of time between the 2009 European elections and the last national election in each member state. 

Table 2.5. Time between EP elections and last national elections

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2.6 Other elections on the same day as European elections

Several member states hold other elections – local, regional and even national elections – on the same day as European elections. This has ambiguous effects. On the one hand, it probably does increase voter participation in European elections. Thus, for example, participation in European elections in the United Kingdom rose by 15 per cent between 1999 and 2004. This was probably the result of a decision to hold some local elections and European elections at the same time. On the other hand, by coupling European elections with other kinds of election, member states probably make it even less likely that the former will be contested on European, and not national, issues. Table 2.6 identifies which member states held other elections on the same day as the 2009 European elections.

Table 2.6. Member states which held national, regional or local elections on the same day as European elections in 2009 

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By Christopher Lord
Published Oct. 21, 2011 12:30 PM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2013 2:40 PM