Dutch right-winger's win kicks off EU elections
Provisional results in the Netherlands reinforces fears of low turnout and popularity of extremist parties across Europe.Brussels – A Dutch far-right party was the big winner as Britain and the Netherlands became the first countries to vote in EU-wide parliament elections, with first results reinforcing fears of low turnout.
The elections began in the two countries on Thursday.
Dutch far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) won 16.9 percent of the vote and four seats in its first European parliament elections, exit polls showed after 92.1 percent of votes were counted.
The PVV was second only to the Christian Democrats (CDA) of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which came in nearly five percentage points lower than in 2004 at 20 percent, losing two of its current seven parliamentary seats.
Voter turnout in the founding EU member was down at 36.5 percent from 39.1 percent in the previous elections in 2004, according to the exit polls, the first indication from an EU country of how voters had cast their ballots.
The publication of the provisional results broke European rules banning their release before the polls have closed across Europe on Sunday night.
Over 375 million people are eligible to take part in the elections, which will roll out across recession-hit Europe. Most of the 27 EU nations vote on Sunday.
But the success of the biggest-ever transnational elections was feared to be tempered by voter apathy and a focus on national woes rather than European perspectives.
As a result, extremist anti-EU right- and left-wing parties hope to pick up votes and seats in the 736-member assembly – slimmed down from the current 785 seats – against a backdrop of rising unemployment and discontent.
Mario Telo, who heads the European Studies Institute at Brussels Free University, said: "This risk exists, as it did in the 1930s, even if the difference is that the extreme right will not have a direct political impact."
But the trend "will show that the national political crisis is dire," he said.
"Corruption, scandals and the quest for scapegoats risk bogging down European democracies, which will have to find the strength to react," Telo said.
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also faced local elections Thursday, is particularly under pressure: recent weeks have seen a string of revelations over dubious expenses claims by British deputies.
Outrage over the claims has cost several politicians their political careers – and led to several ministerial resignations.
Opinion polls suggest Brown's governing Labour party could finish behind the main opposition Conservatives, the smaller opposition party, the Liberal Democrats – and even fringe eurosceptics the United Kingdom Independence Party.
EU voter turnout has fallen with each election since the first in 1979, despite the growing role the parliament plays in adopting, amending or rejecting laws in Europe.
Polls have indicated this week could see an average lower than the 45.6 percent recorded in 2004.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged voters to turn out.
"Everyone must understand that Europe is very important to daily lives," said Sarkozy, who has made a similar appeal earlier with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Despite the economic crisis the European People's Party – an umbrella group for centre-right parties from across the EU – was set to remain the biggest political bloc in the parliament.
Despite the loss of the British and Czech Conservatives, who quit the EPP, deeming it too europhile, the bloc looked set to win 262 seats and 35 percent of votes cast, according to the final pre-election opinion poll.
The Predict09.eu survey said the Socialists would remain in second place on 194 seats but in a more fragmented assembly.
On Friday, attention was to turn to Ireland and the Czech Republic.
Cyprus, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia will go to the polls on Saturday before Europe's Super Sunday, when the other 19 EU nations – including France, Germany, Italy and Spain – round off the voting.
AFP / Expatica