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Low turnout looms over marathon EU election


Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-06-07

Saturday marks the penultimate day of voting for Europe's parliament, with voters in Cyprus, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia heading to the polls. Voting so far has brought gains for the Dutch far-right, exit polls say.

Voters in Cyprus, Latvia, Malta, Slovakia and French overseas territories cast their ballots Saturday in the latest round of European elections, marked by low turnout and gains for the far-right in the Netherlands.

As the world's biggest transnational polls, to select a new European parliament for five years, gathered pace the British government was reeling with ministers resigning, and others faced electoral tests against a backdrop of deep recession.

4,800 voters in the Atlantic archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon are the first French citizens to cast their ballot on Saturday. They will be followed by voters in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana, and French Polynesia throughout the day.


Exit polls in Ireland, which voted on Friday, suggested the government there had suffered a voter backlash in a triple ballot, including local polls.

Italians too were to head to polling booths later Saturday with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi showing no signs of the growing pressure to explain his ties to an 18-year-old aspiring model.

"The electoral results will represent a terrible defeat for this left, which has substituted an electoral programme -- which it doesn't have -- for calumny," Berlusconi said Monday, referring to a smear campaign against him.

While economic woes could lead voters to punish their governments, concern is rife that voter apathy might undermine the victory that Berlusconi and analysts expect the conservatives to seal in the new 736-seat EU parliament.

Opinion polls suggest low turnout could favour the extreme right and left, although probably not enough to upset the balance in the assembly, which is slowly gaining power in EU decision making.

The Netherlands has been a case in point.

On Thursday, Dutch far-right and anti-Islamic lawmaker Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom came second in its first EU poll with 17 percent of the vote, winning four seats in the assembly, according to near-complete results.

"This confirms the fears," said Antonio Missiroli, analyst at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels. But "it's not completely unexpected. It's not a bad surprise, just bad news."

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats lost over four percentage points to finish with less than 20 percent of the vote.

Release of the Dutch results broke rules banning their publication before polls close at 2000 GMT after voting on Europe's super Sunday, when a remaining 19 EU nations head to the ballot booths.

The European Commission, whose chief Jose Manuel Barroso could be confirmed as president for another five years by the parliament, wants an explanation and is mulling possible action against the Netherlands.

The low turnout many feared was also evident, with 36.5 percent of voters in the founding EU member taking part, down from 39.2 percent in 2004.

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 could beat the 45.6 percent record from last time, polls suggest.

In the Czech Republic, where voting began Friday, eurosceptic President Vaclav Klaus questioned the parliament's role as he cast his ballot.

"This is definitely an election. The question is the meaning of the institution," said Klaus, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Elsewhere Saturday, Latvia's government confronted its first ballot test since falling victim to the economic crisis, with Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis' centre-right coalition fearing a backlash.

In Slovakia, an opinion poll predicted voter turnout at 14 percent, a drop on the 17 percent who took part in 2004; the EU's lowest.

Turnout was unlikely to be a concern in Malta, where voters are known to be enthusiastic and turnout is predicted to top 80 percent.

In Cyprus, voters are heading to EU elections for the second time, but with no deal in sight on ending the island's 35-year-old division, no polling was to be held in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island.

In Britain, where voting was also held Thursday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was battling for survival after several ministers quit, and poor results from these polls would probably reignite backbench unrest.

Date created : 2009-06-06