Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 1 News List

EU poll marked by no confidence, dismal turnouts

REUTERS , BRUSSELS

Europe's voters delivered a massive vote of no confidence in their governments in European Parliament elections, by both hammering ruling parties and staying away from the ballot boxes in record numbers.

As vote counting neared a finish yesterday in the biggest transnational election in history, staged just six weeks after the EU expanded from 15 to 25 states with 450 million citizens, it highlighted public alienation from remote EU institutions with a record low turnout. In mid-term protest votes, electors punished British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his role in the US-led Iraq war, and governing parties in France, Germany and Poland for economic stagnation, high unemployment and painful social reforms.

Only the recently elected Spanish and Greek governments escaped the voters' wrath, amplifying their national victories. A mere 44.2 percent of nearly 350 million eligible voters bothered to cast ballots in the four-day exercise in cross-border democracy, the lowest turnout since direct elections for the Strasbourg-based assembly began in 1979.

In an irony of history, voter participation was even weaker in the 10 new, mainly ex-communist east European member states, where it averaged just 26 percent, apparently due to voter fatigue after referendums last year on joining the EU.

"Today's results, up to now, appear to be the worst," outgoing parliament president Pat Cox said, lamenting the narrow domestic focus of the debate. "Europe has been too absent in too many campaigns."

In Britain and Poland, hardline Euroskeptics made stunning gains, sending strident new voices of hostility to European integration to sit in the increasingly powerful EU legislature.

The UK Independence Party, which won its first three seats in 1999, was on course to grab 12 this time, while opposition parties in Poland beat the ruling Socialists into fourth place. In the Czech Republic, rightist and leftist opposition parties beat the ruling Social Democrats into third place.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats crashed to their worst result since World War II while French President Jacques Chirac's center-right UMP party suffered its second electoral defeat in three months.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party also lost ground, although it suffered a milder anti-war backlash than other US allies in Britain, Denmark or Portugal.

The overall balance in parliament, which has growing powers over EU spending, financial regulation, food safety and environmental rules, was little changed.

The center-right European People's Party (EPP) was set to remain the biggest group with 272 of the 732 seats, the Socialists came second with 201, the Liberals third with 66 and the Greens fourth with 42.

It was not immediately clear what alliance would be formed to run parliament.

Politicians said the Socialists and an augmented Liberal group that may be boosted by pro-integration defectors from the center-right EPP were exploring a possible deal, although a return to the traditional power-sharing between EPP and Socialists which prevailed until 1999 was also possible.

Despite the low turnout, leaders of the European Parliament groups hailed their own results.

Liberal leader Graham Watson said his faction could be in the position of "kingmakers" while the Party of European Socialists said no legislation would be able to pass in the house without its backing.

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