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EU early results show centre-right gains

The European Union says centre-right parties are expected to take the most seats in the 736-member parliament.

Leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin, right, laughs after winning a seat in the European Parliament, at Manchester Town Hall, in England, on June 8 2009.
Leader of the British National Party Nick Griffin, right, laughs after winning a seat in the European Parliament, at Manchester Town Hall, in England, on June 8 2009.

BRUSSELS // Centre-right parties hailed European Parliament victories as a vote against stimulus spending and corporate bailouts. A record low voter turnout - 43.4 per cent - in voting that ended yesterday pointed to enduring voter apathy about the European Union (EU). The EU said centre-right parties were expected to take the most seats - 267 - in the 736-member parliament. Centre-left parties were headed for 159 seats. The remainder were expected to go to smaller groupings.

Right-leaning governments were ahead of the opposition in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, while conservative opposition parties were leading in Britain and Spain. "You would have expected a protest vote against those governments and for the Socialists to do well. But it didn't," said Jackie Davis, an analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank. Greece was a notable exception, where the governing conservatives were headed for defeat in the wake of corruption scandals and economic woes.

Germans handed a lacklustre victory to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and a historic defeat to their centre-left rivals in the European Parliament vote months before a national election. The Social Democrats got an unexpectedly dismal 20.8 per cent - the party's worst showing since World War II in any nationwide election. Ms Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and a regional sister party won 37.8 per cent, down from 44.5 per cent five years ago.

But the outcome was enough to boost Ms Merkel's hopes of ending the tense left-right "grand coalition" that has led the European Union's most populous nation since 2005, and replacing it with a centre-right government. "We are the force that is acting level-heatedly and correctly in this financial and economic crisis," said Volker Kauder, the leader of Ms Merkel's party in the German parliament. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservatives trounced the Socialists, while an ecology-minded party vaulted to a surprisingly strong third place, according to official results. The Socialists, who dominated the last vote in 2004, suffered a stinging defeat, barely clinging to the second spot.

Far-right groups and other fringe parties gained in record low turnout estimated at 43.5 per cent of 375 million eligible, reflecting widespread disenchantment with the continent-wide legislature. Britain elected its first extreme-right politician to the European Parliament, with the British National Party winning a seat in northern England's Yorkshire and the Humber district. The far-right party, which does not accept non-whites as members, was expected to possibly win further seats as more results in Britain were announced.

Lawmakers with Britain's major political parties said the far right's advance was a reflection of anger over immigration issues and the recession that is causing unemployment to soar. Near-final results showed Austria's main rightist party gaining strongly while the ruling Social Democrats lost substantial ground. But the big winner was the rightist Freedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13.1 per cent of the vote.

The EU parliament has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws. Lawmakers get five-year terms and residents vote for lawmakers from their own countries. The parliament can also amend the EU budget - US$170 billion (Dh624b) this year - and approves candidates for the European Commission, the EU administration and the board of the European Central Bank.

Many Socialists ran campaigns that slammed centre-right leaders for failing to rein in financial markets and spend enough to stimulate faltering economies. "People don't want a return to socialism and that's why the majority here will be a centre-right majority," said Graham Watson, leader of the EU's centre-right Liberal Democrat grouping. In Spain, the conservative Popular Party won two more seats than the ruling Socialists - 23 to 21 seats - with over 88 per cent of the vote counted.

The Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People's Party held a two-digit lead over his main centre-left rival in the most recent polling despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with a young model. Italian results were being released today. In Britain, the prime minister Gordon Brown was facing a showdown with rebel lawmakers today after the party's expected dismal results in the European parliament and local elections were announced. Mr Brown has been struggling with the economic crisis and a scandal over lawmakers' expenses. The opposition Conservatives are expected to win the next national election, which must be called by June 2010.

According to a BBC projection, Labour was trailing the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in third place. It put the main opposition Conservative Party at 27 per cent, UKIP at 17 and Labour at 16, followed by smaller parties. "This time we have come second in a major national election. That is a hell of an achievement," said Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP - which advocates Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.

An exit poll showed Irish ruling party Fianna Fail, which supports EU plans to strengthen its authority, trailing its rival Fine Gael by 23 per cent to 30 per cent. The outcome of many Irish races was unclear earlier today. The count was halted for an hour last night in Ireland's North-west EU constituency after candidate Declan Ganley, founder of anti-treaty party Libertas, raised procedural questions about the opening of ballot boxes.

* AP