British, Dutch voters kick off EU elections
Britain and the Netherlands started the 27-nation election in which 375 million people are eligible to vote.Brussels – Four days of voting for the European Union parliament started Thursday with the continent's leaders braced for high abstention rates and protest votes which could boost extremist parties.
Britain and the Netherlands started the 27-nation election in which 375 million people are eligible to take part.
However the success of the biggest-ever transnational elections could be tempered by a record low turnout and a focus on national rather than European politics.
Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, appealed on the eve of the polling for attention to be fixed on European issues.
"One cannot complain of the EU being undemocratic and at the same time refuse to go to the polls," said Fischer.
Unemployment in Europe has risen to 8.6 percent, the highest level since early 2006, as recession takes its toll, and several extremist anti-EU right and left wing parties hope to pick up votes and even a few seats in the 736 member assembly.
Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown is under increasing pressure amid a scandal over expenses by members of the country's national parliament which has seen ministerial heads roll.
His ruling Labour Party is likely to be beaten into third place, at best, in the European election, according to opinion polls, with the anti-EU UK Independence Party snapping at its heels.
The opposition Conservatives, led by David Cameron, lead the British parties.
Brown's party is slumped into its worst opinion poll showing since 1987 and surveys on the local elections also predict a weak performance.
All eyes in the Netherlands are on far-right leader Geert Wilders.
A Dutch opinion poll predicted the Christian Democratic (CDA) party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende would get 14 percent of the vote, and its governing partner, the labour PvdA party, 12 percent.
Wilders' Party for Freedom could also get 12 percent of the vote, the liberal VVD 11 percent, and the Socialist Party 10 percent.
The Dutch government will give preliminary results from the vote on Thursday but other countries will wait until Sunday – after the final 19 nations have voted to give the official results.
EU leaders also fear the turnout rate, which has fallen with each election since the first in 1979, could slump to a new record low, despite the growing role which the parliament plays in adopting, amending or rejecting laws to be applied throughout Europe.
Polls have indicated the abstention rate could be higher than the record 45 percent in 2004.
The European People's Party – an umbrella group for centre-right parties from across the EU – is expected to remain the biggest political bloc in the parliament, even if it loses some MEPS.
That is despite the fact that the British and Czech Conservatives have left the EPP, deeming it too Europhile.
The European Socialists, currently the second largest group in the European parliament, are also preparing for mediocre results.
After the British and Dutch votes, attention will turn on Friday 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 – will round off the voting.
Ireland's EU partners will be watching closely as embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen seeks to convince his countrymen that they need the EU more than ever as the downturn hits hard.
Ireland's voters plunged the 27-nation bloc into limbo when they rejected the EU's reforming Lisbon treaty in a referendum last year.
The Libertas Party, led by Irish businessman Declan Ganley, which opposes the treaty will be seeking to make a splash at its first European elections.
AFP / Expatica