After extremely high turnout in elections in the early 1990s, why has voter participation fallen to around the 60 percent mark in the Czech Republic? And why are young people in particular staying away from polling stations? These are questions considered at length by the sociologist Lukáš Linek, the title of whose most recent book Kam se ztratili voliči? translates as Where have the voters gone? When we spoke recently, I asked Linek what had been his main findings.
“Actually there are two strong conclusions from my research. The first is that the turnout decline is partly caused by strong structural changes within Czech society.
“I would call it something like atomisation of society, or a running away from big institutions.
“The change is something like people go away from the church, they go away from marriage and they go away from trade unions. Those institutions are like mobilising agents for people to go to the polls.
“And as a lot of people are not mobilised by those institutions as they were in the ‘90s, they don’t go to the polls.
“My estimate is that this running away from those big institutions has caused a drop in turnout of, let’s say, four, five percent.
“The second big conclusion is that voters lost the belief that elections can bring any change. Everything will be the same no matter whether they vote or not.”
Why do you think they lost that belief?
“The data suggests that this belief was lost during the period of the Opposition Agreement, between 1998 and 2002…”
That was when the two main parties, the nominal socialists [the Social Democrats] and the nominal conservatives [the Civic Democrats] got together and basically divided power [under a Social Democrat government]?
“Yes. But we shouldn’t forget that also before this Opposition Agreement there was a huge decline in the economic situation.
“And people saw for the first time that what Klaus and the Civic Democrats were telling us was not right. They were corrupt and there were corruption scandals.
“The dream they were told they were going to live, that they would get to Western European standards soon, didn’t happen, didn’t materialise.”
The elections after the Opposition Agreement, which ended in 2002, had the all-time lowest turnout of 58 percent. But isn’t 58 percent comparable to rates in other EU countries anyway?
“It is comparable – we can compare it. But it’s lower by 20 percent to what is the average turnout level in Western European countries. It’s around 75, 78 percent. So it’s a difference.”
I thought maybe that after the fall of Communism in the first two elections… in the first elections there was almost 100 percent turnout and then 85 percent in 1992… I simply expected that what followed was a natural fall to European levels. But you’re saying the Czechs have fallen below the European average?
“It is below the Western European standards. But it’s above Eastern or post-communist countries’ standards.
“One interesting thing is that we can argue that there was some kind of authoritarian communist regime and then the transformation and change boosted turnout and the interest of people in politics and then naturally turnout went down.
“But when we compare the situation of post-communist countries to the situation in Latin American countries, where they experienced the same kind of transition but 20 years before the post-communist countries, the drop in turnout is much slower there.
“So it seems to be that there is something special that causes turnout decline in post-communist countries. The dynamics, especially, are very different to what we see in Western European or Latin American countries.”
So there’s essentially greater disillusionment in this part of the world?
“It might be disillusionment. But on the other side it might also be the weakness of civil society, the weakness of other mobilising institutions which would get people to the polls. Because Western Europe, Latin America, they are much stronger in this.
“The thing is that we should ask why people go to the polls. First of all, they go because they are motivated. They want some change. They want to support some party.
“But if you are not motivated, is it possible that you will go to the polls? I say, yes, if somebody mobilises you. If your wife takes you, or if you are told by your friends, if your clergyman tells you should go, or your boss in the trade union. Whatever – if somebody tells you, you go.
“And if those mobilising agents are not present, or are weak, you have lower turnout.”
Also it seems from what I’ve been reading about your research that the biggest falloff in turnout has been among young people. Why is that?
“Actually, it’s not easy to give an answer. What we see is not only a decline in turnout among young people, but turnout decline especially among lower educated young people.
“It’s not that all young people don’t go to the polls, but it’s especially people with basic, elementary or secondary education.
“University educated young people: 90 percent turnout. But lower educated people don’t go. The question of why it happens is puzzling scholars in Western Europe as well, because the trend is the same. And even in the US.
“I haven’t seen any reasonable explanation. There are the usual suspects. Arguments like they don’t believe that elections can bring anything.
“The second typical argument is that those young people have different citizenship norms, that they don’t value the high kind of citizen duty, which is paying taxes, going to elections, supporting parties or politicians, like an authority thing.
“Single issues. Supporting a local case, or whatever.”
Is there a danger that if they don’t vote at a young age they will never vote?
“It may happen. One of the greatest scholars in the turnout field, Mark Franklin, has got a big argument saying that generational experience, and especially experience in first, formative elections shapes voters’ turnout behaviour in their future.
“He says that if you don’t go to the polls in your first three, four elections, you are not going to vote in your future life.”
I also wanted to ask you about the issue of opinion polls. My impression is that there are a huge number of polls here. It seems like every week there is a poll from some agency about support for the various parties. Is that normal?
“It is. I mean, normal… it is what is in the majority of countries. If you lived in the US, it would be 10 polls a day. In Britain, it’s two or three polls a day. So we are now in a situation which is kind of typical.
“I wouldn’t say normal. I don’t like it, but it is how it is. There is a demand for those data. The polling companies use it as a kind of marketing tool, because every time there is the name of the company, so it promotes the name.”
In general how trustworthy do you think those polls are?
“It depends on the polls and especially the polling company. There are polling companies I believe: CVVM, Median, SC&C. These are good polling companies and you can easily bet on what they say and show.
“On the other hand, you’ve got companies which just appear at election time and just release one or two or three polls…”
And of course the media are hungry for more numbers.
There was some agency that appeared, or at least I first noticed them, about two or three years ago and they were an internet-based polling company. My immediate reaction was I can’t trust them, because if they’re only polling online, there are so many people offline, like old people and the like. My immediate reaction was, these people are illegitimate. But they got a lot of coverage.
“I think you have in mind a company called SANEP… Internet surveys are a very common thing in Western Europe and the United States. They have really big advantages. For example, they have internet panels, which means that they survey the same people for, for example, one, two, three years.
“They have lots of information about those people and they can ask them two or three questions. They send an email and ask them to answer those questions and immediately they can present results evaluating a debate of politicians on TV, or whatever.
“They have huge information about those people. So they can easily whether they are rich or lower educated, they are old or they are young, and they don’t need to spend time on asking those questions.
“Moreover, there is huge methodology behind those internet surveys. So I think they know what they are doing, because otherwise they wouldn’t set up that big company.
“They live from the marketing field, so there are companies that trust that they are doing the right things.”