(Update 1: Adds info about low voter turnout)
Paris, Mar 15 (efe-epa).- Voter participation in the French municipal elections was running 16 percentage points below past elections at 5 pm on Sunday amid uncertainty and fear among the public regarding the local spread of the coronavirus.
Three hours before the polls were scheduled to close, 38.77 percent of the eligible voters had cast ballots compared to the 54.72 percent who had done so by that time in the latest municipal elections in 2014, according to the Interior Ministry.
In the 2014 elections, total voter participation exceeded 62 percent, but some projections estimate that participation will not top 50 percent this time around, a figure that would be the lowest in history for such elections in France.
The decline comes after on Saturday the French government announced an important package of measures designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus, specifically including the closure of all “non-essential” public establishments, although the municipal elections were not postponed.
Some 70,000 polling stations opened on Sunday in France in the first round of municipal elections amid widespread restrictions to fight the growing spread of coronavirus in the country.
Almost 48 million voters have been called to elect mayors in 35,000 municipalities for the next six years in an unprecedented environment, with the country more concerned about the Covid-19 outbreak than the ballot box.
France has seen almost 4,500 confirmed infections and more than 90 deaths from the virus, which emerged in the Chinese province of Hubei in December and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
There have been growing calls for the authorities to delay the electoral appointment because of the exceptional circumstances.
President of Occitanie Carole Delga asked for a postponement after Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the closure of bars, restaurants, cinemas and non-essential stores.
“In view of the latest statements by the prime minister and the growing concern of the population, I think that the most sensible thing would be to delay the municipal elections,” she said in French on Twitter.
The government debated an electoral delay on Thursday, shortly before President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation in a televised speech.
But leaders of the main parties strongly opposed a postponement and even went as far as to say that doing so would amount to an institutional coup d’etat.
Republican party president Christian Jacob accused Macron of wanting to delay the vote to hide the setback the polls had predicted for his party in the municipal elections.
The executive said that the scientific committee had advised that the vote would not be a supplementary factor in the spread of the epidemic.
The impact would be similar to that found in a supermarket if certain exceptional measures were met, according to scientists.
Polling stations have been equipped with hand gel, a person dedicated to cleaning, signs on the floor to keep distance between voters and messages reminding citizens to avoid contact with each other.
They must also give priority to elderly or frail people and allow them to cast their votes without having to wait in queues.
France’s interior ministry will publish turnout figures at 8 pm when the polls will close and the count will begin.
Voter surveys have predicted a good result for environmentalists, stability for conservatives and socialists, a moderate rise in the extreme right and a bad result for Macron’s party.