Conservative parties clean up in EU poll

Conservative parties decisively beat Socialists in the EU parliamentary elections which ended Sunday, marred by a new record-low turnout. Significant gains were made by far-right parties across Europe.


AFP - Conservative parties decisively beat Socialists in the EU parliamentary elections which ended Sunday, marred by a new record low turnout.

As Europe's left failed to capitalise on widespread concerns over the recession, far-right anti-immigrant and eurosceptic parties seized on the void to gain support for their hardline message.

Projected results did not augur well for embattled British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, showing his Labour Party embarrassingly beaten into third place by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which wants Britain out of the European Union.

The extreme right-wing British National Party won its first ever European Parliament seat, while Dutch anti-Islamic lawmaker Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom came second with 17 percent of the vote.

Finland's nationalist and eurosceptic True Finns party also saw a strong rise in support, with 10 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.

Socialist parties in power in Britain, Spain and Portugal were punished by their electorates while other left-wing parties in opposition in Germany and France suffered painful losses.

The centre-right European People's Party secured 267 seats, making it the biggest group in the 736-member assembly, ahead of the Socialists on 159 seats, according to official estimates.

The result gives the EPP nearly as many lawmakers as they had in the last parliament, which was larger with 785 seats. The strong showing also comes despite the British and Czech conservatives deserting the group.

The Liberals came in third with 81 seats followed by the Greens with 54 seats in the parliament, the European Union's only directly elected institution.

Some 388 million people were eligible to vote in the world's biggest transnational elections which were spread over four days.

Turnout slumped to 43.6 percent, down from 45.5 percent in 2004 and the lowest rate ever.

"The turnout compared to 2004 shows that this is not the time for complacency," European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said, urging national governments to play a more visible EU role.

"It's a sad evening for social democracy in Europe. We are particularly disappointed, (it is) a bitter evening for us," said the head of the Socialist bloc, German lawmaker Martin Schulz.

In Britain, Brown's ruling Labour Party was braced for a drubbing which will add to pressure on his leadership after a week of political turmoil.

According to a BBC projection, Labour was expected to win only 16 percent of votes, behind the main opposition Conservatives on 27 percent and the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which wants Britain out of the European Union, on 17 percent.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives came out on top, trouncing her centre-left rivals in what was seen as a dry run for September's general election.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party romped home with 28 percent of the vote, leaving the opposition Socialists trailing with only 16.8 percent, barely ahead of the Greens.

Italy's scandal-plagued centre-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi rode the wave, holding his lead with 35 percent of the vote.

Spain's opposition conservatives beat the ruling Socialists, with the opposition Popular Party getting 42 percent against 38 percent for Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's party.

The Socialist party of Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates also suffered a surprise defeat by the right-wing Social Democrats.

In Austria, the list of eurosceptic campaigner Hans-Peter Martin made major gains, while the ruling Social Democrats had their worst election debacle ever, official results showed.

In Ireland, which voted on Friday, the centrist Fianna Fail party led by Prime Minister Brian Cowen suffered a voter backlash, losing out to the opposition Fine Gael.

In contrast to its centre-right European peers, Greece's ruling conservatives trailed the opposition Socialists for their first defeat in five years amid a record-low turnout.

In Bulgaria, accusations of vote-buying including three arrests marred the elections, despite an unprecedented clampdown.

The centre-right victory boosts Barroso's chances of securing a second term at the helm of the EU executive arm when his mandate expires in November.

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