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European Parliament vote: Extreme right poised to gain ground

Britain's Gordon Brown could fall, while Dutch populist Geert Wilders's anti-Islam stand finds new appeal.

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The twice-a-decade European Parliamentary vote is sometimes grandiosely billed as the world's biggest multinational elections. This time, around 375 million people are eligible to cast ballots in 27 countries, sending 736 legislators to Brussels.

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In reality, the vote is more like a mid-term election, a chance to give national governments a bloody nose. The paradox is that while most voters couldn't care less about the European Parliament, it is becoming more and more important as an institution. When it was first elected in 1979, turnout was more than 60 percent – but the chamber was little more than just a talking shop.

These days, turnout has scudded to well below 50 percent – but the Parliament has arguably become more important than national parliaments. It scrutinizes and weighs in on as much as two-thirds of all EU laws, ranging from immigration to the environment, from transport to trade, from communications to employment rights.

"The European Parliament is the second most powerful legislative parliament in the world after the US Congress," says Simon Hix, a professor of European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an analyst for the website. "The powers of the EU have increased enormously. The EU is responsible for regulating and creating a continental-scale market in Europe and most of that is done with equal power to the European Parliament."

Caroline Lucas, a Briton who has served as a Green Party Member of Parliament for 10 years, says many voters underestimate the power of the chamber. "Eighty percent of environmental policy and 50 percent of social policy comes from Brussels, so electing a politician you believe in is crucial," she says.

Parliamentary wallflowers?

The lurch to populism could bring a clutch of new obstructionist legislators into the Brussels parliament. Other rightwing parties poised to do well include the Freedom Party in Austria and Jobbik in Hungary.

But Ms. Lucas says it is unclear how that will affect policymaking. The irony of sending anti-Europeans to Brussels is that when they get there they tend to sit in the corner and sulk rather than engaging with process.

"It all depends whether they engage in the work of the Parliament," Lucas says. She notes that UKIP, the British rejectionists, have done "almost no work at all in the Parliament" over the past five years. "It depends whether they abstain or engage. If they do engage then there is a real risk that policy will get affected."

Voters angry about economy

Europe is not a homogenous political space and different countries will throw up contrasting trends. In some countries like Germany and France, the breakthrough party is expected to come from the far left, not the far right.

In general, Hix says, the center-right will hold its ground: center-right governing parties in Italy and Poland, for example, are expected to trounce the opposition.

But the center-left "is going to do badly across all of Europe," Hix predicts. "We are seeing the mainstream parties being punished for economic crisis.

"We are seeing a growing populism – it's against foreigners, against Europe, and against globalization."