EU vote under cloud as Dutch result release questioned

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The European Commission said that publication of the Dutch results -- which by law should have been held back until late Sunday -- appeared to be against the spirit of the rules for the European Parliament polls.

Brussels -- Europe's election marathon was clouded in controversy Friday after the premature release of Dutch poll results confirmed widespread fears of gains by the far-right and low voter turnout.

The European Commission said that publication of the Dutch results -- which by law should have been held back until late Sunday -- appeared to be against the spirit of the rules for the European Parliament polls.

"We are going to ask for clarification from the Netherlands," said Amadeu Altafaj Tardio, a senior spokesman for the European Union's executive arm.

"We want to know who published what information, at what moment, and to whom. We will give the interested party a chance to explain itself before we make a decision" on any action, he said.

The Dutch move, he said, "does not appear to respect the spirit of the elections to the European Parliament."

Dutch and British voters on Thursday kicked off four days of voting across Europe to choose the 736 members of the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution.

While the British results will not be released until all 27 EU nations have completed voting, preliminary results from the Netherlands were published as ballot slips were counted.

Under EU rules, no results -- preliminary, partial or local and including turnout figures -- can be given to the media or polling institutes before the end of voting across the entire European Union.

"We will assess (the Dutch response) from a legal point of view, and we will take measures if measures have to be taken," the spokesman said. "We as the guardian of the treaties have to make sure the legal framework is observed."

The Dutch government insisted that voters had the right to know the outcome of the polls in a timely manner.

"Discussions are under way with the European Commission," interior ministry spokesman Tijs Manten said. "We will give them an explanation. We believe that voters have the right to know the results speedily."

He said official Dutch results would be released next Thursday after confirmation by the electoral council. The Netherlands also released its results ahead of the rest of the bloc in 2004, but was never sanctioned.

The EU executive reminded member states of the result rules by mail last month, and again at a press conference Thursday. But it can only take action, which could result in a fine, once the rules are broken.

"It would be unthinkable in a member state that a region publish results before the rest of the country," the commission spokesman said. "We think it should be the same in the European Union."

Dutch far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) won 16.9 percent support Thursday and four seats in its first European elections, according to results based on 92.1 percent of votes counted.

The PVV was second only to the Christian Democrats (CDA) of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, which lost over four percentage points compared to 2004 at 20 percent.

The low turnout feared by many was also evident, with 36.5 percent of voters in the founding EU member taking part, down from 39.1 percent in the previous elections five years ago.

Overall turnout has fallen with each EU election since the first in 1979, despite the growing role the parliament plays in adopting, amending or rejecting laws, and surveys indicate it could be lower than the 45.6 percent last time.

There was widespread concern this trend could favour the far-right, although not enough to shift the balance of power, with the elections expected to mark the return of the conservatives as the dominant bloc in the EU assembly.

Lorne Cook/AFP/Expatica

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