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Far-right faces Dutch surprise as EU votes begins

Far-right politician Geert Wilders of the anti-immigration Dutch Freedom (PVV) Party speaks at a PVV rally after the European Parliament elections in the Hague, yesterday.
Wilders had predicted an ‘earthquake’ but party finishes fourth as first polls held in Netherlands, UK

BRUSSELS — Dutch Eurosceptic Geert Wilders had predicted a political “earthquake” in the European Union’s marathon parliamentary election that kicked off yesterday, but — at least in the Netherlands — the tremors weren’t nearly as strong as polls had forecast.

A Dutch exit poll indicated that Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party — which plans to forge an alliance with France’s far-right National Front — had fallen well short of its goal of topping the poll and had finished in fourth place, behind three pro-European parties.

After two months of campaigning that opinion polls suggest has largely failed to inspire the electorate, some 388 million Europeans are entitled to vote in 28 countries, choosing 751 deputies to represent them in the European Parliament. Voting started yesterday in the Netherlands and Britain, and will finish on Sunday.

From Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, support has never been shakier for allowing the European Union and its institutions a major say over people’s lives. Founded in the aftermath of World War II with the goal of fostering prosperity and peace, the EU is now blamed by many for tough economic times, bureaucratic overreach and doing the bidding of the rich and powerful.

With Europe struggling to recover from economic crisis, including record high unemployment and negligible growth, the election is expected to produce a surge in support for Eurosceptics on both the far-right and hard left.

In Britain, final opinion polls showed the UK Independence Party, which wants to withdraw from the EU and impose tighter immigration controls, topping the poll and pushing the governing Conservatives into third place behind Labour.

If confirmed, that could raise pressure on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who has promised an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 if he is re-elected next year, to take a tougher line on reducing the EU’s powers.

In the Netherlands, an IPSOS exit poll on public television suggested Wilders’ Freedom Party would finish fourth with 12.2 percent, behind three pro-EU parties: the centre-right Christian Democrats, the centrist Democrats 66 and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals.

Wilders blamed the disappointing score on a low turnout, saying that “by staying home (voters) showed their loathing for and disinterest in the European Union. The Netherlands has not become more pro-European.”

In the last European Parliament elections five years ago the Freedom Party came second. Andre Krouwel, a political science professor at Amsterdam’s VU University, said Wilders had failed to get enough of his supporters to turn out.

“His support isn’t down, around one third of the electorate agrees with him — but that one third didn’t show up,” he said. “That’s bad news for him, because he wanted to portray himself as a victor ... That would have given him status in Europe.”

Both the Netherlands and Britain will report their results once voting has finished in all EU member states on Sunday. Consolidated results, including the allotment of seats in the Parliament, will be announced at around 2100 GMT on Sunday.

Low turnout favours extremes

The bulk of countries vote on Sunday, when the trend towards the political extremes may become clearer, particularly in France, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Greece and Austria.

At one of his final campaign events, Jean-Claude Juncker, the top candidate for Europe’s centre-right political group, urged voters to steer away from the extremes.

“Do not give your votes to extremist xenophobes or fascists,” the veteran former Luxembourg prime minister said at a rally in Brussels. “If you want Europe to function and to serve its citizens, we should vote for people who will work hard in the next European Parliament.”

Juncker and his Socialist opponent, Martin Schulz, the German president of the outgoing European Parliament, have held an unprecedented series of television debates in an effort to personalise the election and enthuse the electorate.

Since the first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979, turnout has fallen every time. It is expected to drop again to around 40 percent this year, pollsters say, a factor that will tend to boost the vote for radical parties.

While the main Eurosceptic assault in many countries comes from the far-right, the challenge to new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party comes from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of former comic Beppe Grillo.

The last surveys released before a blackout on publishing opinion polls gave the Democrats a comfortable lead, but private polls leaked since then suggest it may be a tighter race.

Mainstream parties still a majority

Europe’s mainstream political groups — the centre-right European People’s Party, the centre-left Socialists & Democrats, the liberal ALDE alliance and the Greens — are together expected to secure 70 percent of the vote, leaving them as a driving force in Europe as long as they work together.

In France, ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, absent from daily politics since being defeated in 2012, intervened at the last minute in the campaign as his conservative UMP party risks being beaten into second place by Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

In an implicit swipe at his unpopular Socialist successor, François Hollande, Sarkozy called for a radical shake-up in the way the EU is run, with a Franco-German economic zone taking leadership of the euro zone at the centre of Europe.

He also called for the suspension of the EU’s open-border Schengen zone of passport-free travel, which had failed to prevent an influx of migrants, and its replacement by a stricter pact open only to countries with tougher immigration controls.

Sarkozy also said in an article in the French weekly magazine Le Point and the German daily Die Welt that it was time to put an end to what he called the “myth” of equality of member states, citing euro zone minnows Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus.

Herald with Reuters, AP

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