LONDON: Europe’s mammoth parliamentary elections kicked off on on Thursday, with Britain and the Netherlands going to the polls in a vote that is expected to see a swing towards populist right-wing parties.
The elections, which are spread over four days in the European Union’s (EU) 28 member states, are set to produce major gains for parties bent on dismantling the union from the inside.
But voter apathy is widespread as the EU struggles for relevance in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis, and grapples with the chaos in on its borders in Ukraine.
“I believe in Europe, but I think there are far too many rules coming from Brussels,” Margreet de Jonge, 63, told Agence France-Presse as she cast her ballot in The Hague, echoing the view of many that the EU has become a bloated bureaucracy.
Ireland and the Czech Republic vote on Friday, Latvia, Malta and Slovakia on Saturday, and the other 21 EU nations on Sunday.
When the results are announced on Sunday, eurosceptic parties may top the polls in Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands.
The anti-immigration and anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders’ virulently anti-Islam Party of Freedom (PVV), are both forecast to make big gains.
UKIP’s rise has rocked the British political establishment as a party without a single seat in its national parliament heads into the European election ahead of the main opposition Labor Party, according to polls in the Times and the Daily Mail newspapers on Thursday.
Farage, a former commodities trader who likes to hold court with journalists in the pub, has ruled out joining a far-right bloc of Wilders’ party and France’s National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, saying the National Front is anti-Semitic.
Farage’s German-born wife Kirsten Mehr told Agence France-Presse as she voted in southeast England that she wanted to “stop the EU from taking more powers over this country.”
Jobless turn against EU
The European parliament has been dismissed as toothless in the past, but these elections are different because the winning bloc will for the first time be able to nominate a replacement for outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
But with 26 million people out of work across the EU, including more than half of those aged under 25 in countries such as Greece and Spain, eurosceptic and far-right parties have picked up massive support on anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms.
Turnout will however be an issue, having dipped every year since the first European parliament elections in 1979, from 62 percent then to 43 percent in the last vote in 2009.
The latest opinion polls show eurosceptics and others could secure almost 100 seats in the new parliament, trebling their number in the 751-seat assembly.
A survey by PollWatch showed conservatives holding a narrow lead over their socialist rivals in the next parliament, with the European People’s Party (EPP) on for 217 seats against 201 for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).
The top group will be able to put forward a candidate later this year as head of the European Commission, the EU’s executive, although national leaders are not duty-bound to accept it.
UKIP highlights the shift towards eurosceptic parties, looking certain to increase the nine seats it currently holds.
Farage’s party is likely to have a similarly strong showing in local council elections that also take place in Britain on Thursday, despite growing accusations of racism.
Simon Hix of the London School of Economics told Agence France-Presse: “It could be perceived as a breakthrough election [because]they could win seats and win votes in all parts of the country.”
In the Netherlands, Wilders hopes to garner six of the 26 seats up for grabs, although unlike Farage he is a lawmaker in his national parliament so will not stand for a Brussels seat.
The platinum-haired Wilders has vowed to take the Netherlands out of the EU and ditch the euro, but analysts said there was voter apathy among eurosceptics.