Conservatives gain in European parliament vote

A record low turnout of only 43 percent of 375 million eligible voters pointed to skepticism about a more integrated Europe.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Voters in Europe turned out in the lowest numbers in 30 years in European parliamentary elections – indicating continued apathy or skepticism over Europe's 736-member political body, and about the larger project of an integrated Europe itself. The low turnout appeared to benefit an assortment of center-right and extreme-right parties across Europe – including a whopping 17 percent of the vote in the Netherlands for the anti-Islamic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, and the first two seats for the anti-immigrant British National Party, some of whose members deny the Holocaust.

The outcome was viewed Monday as a minor disaster for center-left parties in Europe, which expected to benefit from a championing of stimulus packages at a time of economic distress. European socialist parties dropped from 217 to 163 seats, with even their own leaders decrying an inability to find sustainable policies that captured the public imagination at a time of high unemployment.

Moreover, the 43 percent of Europeans that voted registered a leitmotif of general disgruntlement with ruling parties in all but eight of the 27 European Union member states on the losing side of ballot totals. Voters did support, albeit weakly, the center-right governments of President Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.

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In France, Mr. Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party won 28 of 39 percent of the vote on the right, while the socialists split 45 percent of the vote among a handful of different parties.

The low turnout and lack of interest was derided by Paris political consultant Xavier Grosclaude, who says it is unfair to the outgoing members of parliament, and disappointing for Europe's democracies. "In a world with dictatorships of all kinds, refusing to exercise a right to choose the only transnational parliament in the world is hard to justify," he offers.

Mr. Grosclaude went on to say that, "beyond an appallingly dull campaign in France, it is urgent to entirely reshape the public message about Europe ... to show the true stakes involved in European integration."

Far-right gains

Along with right-wing gains in Britain and the Netherlands, extreme right parties that are variously anti-immigrant, antigypsy, antigay, anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic – picked up substantial numbers in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary.

Some parties on the left also scored gains: The Europe Ecology party of Daniel Cohn-Bendit in France split the vote with the Socialists, and in Germany the Greens scored a healthy 12.1 percent, coming in third.

Swedish pirates?

Perhaps the two most novel winners of a seat in the European parliament were techno-politicians from Sweden's "Pirate Party" – formed two years ago while championing the issue of allowing greater Internet access to music files as well as Internet privacy.

Elections in the European Union are held every five years for the parliament, which works in tandem with European Union institutions in Brussels. The representative body votes on two-thirds of all EU laws.

In Europe's complex politics, the vote is seen as an indicator of a general zeitgeist, even if an imperfect one. Low turnout for the June 4-7 elections comes after a failed EU bid to ratify the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which would inaugurate a more integrated and more powerful federal structure for Europe. The Lisbon bid requires a unanimous vote, with Ireland as the lone holdout.

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