Slight increase in French turnout amid European apathy

Mid-day exit polls suggested a slight increase in the French voter turnout for the EU parliamentary elections at 14.81% while other European states fear poor participation rates that could boost far right and left-wing parties.


AFP - European governments watched nervously Sunday as voters completed four days of polling in EU parliamentary elections, amid fears of low turnout and extremist gains throughout the recession-hit continent.

Europe's Super Sunday saw electors from 19 of the 27 EU nations -- including heavyweights France, Germany, Italy and Spain -- cast their ballots.

Opinion and exit polls suggested poor turnout which could favour extreme left- and right-wing parties, although not enough to upset the balance in the new 736-seat assembly.

In a last effort to get electors out, EU Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, voting in his native Portugal, exhorted European citizens to head for the ballot boxes to elect an EU parliament which "is become more important every day".

He recalled that 20 years ago that citizens in many of the 27 EU nations involved "could not vote freely".

Turnout has fallen with each EU election since the first in 1979 -- and this time could beat the 45.5 percent record from 2004, pre-vote polls suggested.

In Britain, where voting was held Thursday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown is battling for survival after several ministers quit.

Poor results from the EU polls, on top of major losses in simultaneous local elections last week, will reignite backbench unrest.

One newspaper poll predicted Brown ruling Labour party would be beaten into fourth place,e even behind the anti-EU UK Independence Party.

The lack of voter interest could provide fertile ground for anti-EU parties capitalising on immigration fears as jobless totals rise and amid a growing indifference, or worse, to the European project.

The voting in the Netherlands Thursday fuelled such fears.

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

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats finished with less than 20 percent of the vote.

Despite such extremist gains, the conservative European People's Party was set to be returned as the biggest bloc in the EU's only elected institution.

The low turnout many feared was also evident, with just 36.5 percent of voters in the Netherlands -- one of the six founding EU member states -- taking part.

Even in Greece, where voting is obligatory, the lack of enthusiasm in the main political parties could lead to a 35 percent abstention rate on a hot June Sunday, according to analysts.

The far-right, xenophobic FPOe in Austria and its photogenic leader Heinz Christian Strache look set to win 14-17 percent of the vote there, polls show, three times more than last time out in 2004.

In Germany the vote is seen a litmus test for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservatives ahead of legislative polls in September in the country which holds the most EU parliament seats.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the only leader of a large EU nation heading an electoral list, shrugged off all concerns, showing no sign of pressure to explain his connection with 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," he said Monday, complaining of a smear campaign against him.

Elsewhere economic woes and national concerns appeared to pre-occupy many of those who did head to the polls, which will involve some 388 million Europeans; the world's largest transnational elections.

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

Official results showing the make-up of the incoming European parliament were expected to start rolling in from 2000 GMT, though earlier exit polls will give an idea of national tendencies.

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