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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Inquiry into low turnout
Ballot box
Turnout fell to 38%, down from 46% last time

A plunge in turnout in the Welsh Assembly election realised the fears of many pundits and politicians.

Turnout fell to 38%, down from 46% in 1999, and the Electoral Commission is to investigate the result.

During the campaign Welsh Labour leader Rhodri Morgan had insisted the turnout was not important and would not damage the credibility of his administration.

But the level of voter apathy about politics in general - and not just about the assembly - is certain to remain a concern.

'Growing disconnection'

The turnout of 59.4% at the 2001 general election had already been the lowest since the war.

The Electoral Commission said it wanted to find out why so few people voted in Wales.

Commissioner for Wales Glyn Mathias said: "This significant drop in turn-out appears to be the result a lack of awareness of the role of the assembly and a growing disconnection between the politicians and sections of the electorate."

It may undermine the credibility of the assembly in some people's eyes
Ex-Plaid leader Dafydd Wigley

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain described turnout as "dreadful" and said politicians were "talking past people."

Liberal Democrat assembly leader Mike German said it was not a good sign for devolution.

"It sets out issues to be talked about and they are firmly in Rhodri Morgan's court to be answered," said Mr German, who was deputy first minister in the assembly's first coalition government.

Former Plaid Cymru leader Dafydd Wigley added: "It is obviously disappointing for us in Wales, and it may undermine the credibility of the assembly in some people's eyes."

More power

But one of Britain's top constitutional experts said low turnout in the National Assembly elections did not mean devolution was a failure.

Turnout depends on the relative importance of the election
Professor Robert Hazell

Professor Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit, said turnout was falling in most countries around the world.

He said: "Turnout depends on the relative importance of the election. It is likely to be lower in devolved elections, because polls show that the Scots and the Welsh believe that Westminster still has more power than the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. "

He added: "Turnout will only rise if a set of issues sharply divides the parties, and the election is a close run race.

Prof Hazell said: "International evidence suggests that PR (proportional representation) helps to increase turnout, by between 3 and 12 per cent.

"The evidence also suggests that the Scots and the Welsh prefer PR to first past the post, and prefer coalition to single party government.

"In a poll conducted for us in April, the Scots and the Welsh both expressed a preference for coalition government. "

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