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How to increase Bulgarian youth turnout in the EU elections

Lika Tsintadze

I am Lika Tsintsadze, a fourth-year student from Georgia. I am studying at the American University in Bulgaria, double-majoring in Political Science & International Relations and European Studies. I am particularly interested in European affairs but at the same time, I am passionate about everything connected to active citizenship, political participation, youth empowerment, and leadership.

This specific interest has guided me to research the participation of Bulgarian youth in the process of decision-making. The data from previous European Parliament (EP) elections illustrate relatively low youth turnout in Bulgaria. With the upcoming EP elections next month, I decided to study the reasons behind this low youth turnout and proposed solutions to increase youth engagement in European politics.  

For the past 4 years, I have been living and studying in Bulgaria. Being surrounded by many Bulgarian students gave me an opportunity to conduct a survey with the participation of 50 Bulgarian students from 18 to 24.

I used an online platform where I obtained 25 responses and I targeted an additional 25 students on campus and had face-to-face conversations with them. I was trying to find out how many students are voting in the upcoming European Parliament election. Their answers also helped me analyse their motives to vote or not to vote in the elections, and, more generally, the level of knowledge and interest of youth in European affairs.

What does Bulgarian youth think about the upcoming EP elections?

Out of the 50 surveyed students, 45% do not plan to vote in the upcoming elections. I was expecting that the primary reason for not voting would be their distrust in national and/or European politics. However, 80% of non-voters responded that the reason is the lack of knowledge and interest in European affairs.

To further explore the issue, I have created an additional questionnaire that would test  students’ knowledge about the European Union. 50% did not know when the European election takes place, including those who initially answered that they are planning to participate in the elections. This makes me think that not everyone was honest with their answers and some of those who said they were planning to vote in the elections did it just because they thought this was the right thing to say.

Moreover, 75% of my responders did not know how many MEPs currently represent Bulgaria in the European Parliament and how they are elected. Interestingly, from the face-to-face interview, only 3 out of 25 students knew that 17 MEPs represent Bulgaria in the European Parliament, while online the number of correct answers was 9. One reason for the discrepancy between the results of face-to-face interviews and the online survey is that the latter creates a possibility of cheating. Those students who provided correct answers could have googled the answers online before responding.

Young respondents rated the current election campaign in Bulgaria mostly as ineffective. They suggested the need for more advanced campaigns that would target youth specifically, familiarizing voters with the benefits of the European Union. Indeed, the Bulgarian EP election campaign is covered mostly by national TV, while for youth, the most important source of news is the Internet and social media.

The EU-level campaign can be considered as a facade campaign. It exists in practice, however, is ineffective. While volunteers are trying to raise awareness on the importance of voting, in practice it does not seem to result in increased youth turnout in the elections. The #Thistimeiamvoting campaign is a good example of this trend. The definition of the #Thistimeiamvoting campaign states that it promotes European democracy by organizing events across Europe.

In Bulgaria, however, there are only 5 events planned until the election day and you can find information about the events only if you access the campaign’s online page. Moreover, the #Thistimeiamvoting campaign that was supposed to target hundreds of thousands of young Europeans online has only 12,000 post entries on Instagram; by comparison, anti-EU campaigns such as #leaveEU and #Brexit have more than 700,000 posts. This demonstrates that Eurosceptics are doing a much better job at promoting their viewpoint and delivering messages to the public.

What can we do increase the Bulgarian youth turnout in the EP elections?

I strongly believe, that there is a need in promoting the act of voting, the act of engaging in political life and the act of belonging to the European Union. “I am Bulgarian; therefore, I am European” campaign is needed that will raise awareness about the European Union and bring it closer to the people.

When youth are not aware of the importance and functions of the European Parliament, how should we expect that they will vote? 98% of European youth has access to social media on a daily basis. Incorporating news related to the European Union to their daily lives would increase their interest and knowledge about the Union and would increase their turnout in the European Parliament elections as well.

An interesting solution would be launching a European TV Channel, broadcasting European news and serving as a platform to raise awareness about the organization in general. The existing media platforms providing audiovisual coverage of EU-related events, such as Euronews, is failing at delivering clear messages to youth. NATO, on the other hand, is doing an amazing job of delivering content to citizens in their language.  Their YouTube channel has around 100,000 subscribers and transmits clear, simple, attractive messages, targeting those citizens who do not have a deep understanding of the institution.  The comprehensible EU media would similarly create cross-cultural and European awareness and would boost the feeling of belonging to the European Union among youth.

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