Europe is bracing for a lurch toward populist, anti-European parties of the right this weekend as the world's biggest transnational elections unfold across 27 countries.
Fringe parties hostile to immigration, foreigners, and the European Union (EU) in general were poised to score well in the first two countries to vote in European parliamentary elections, Britain and Holland, according to exit polls and expert projections.
Geert Wilders, a populist who despises Islam, opposes immigration, and wants the European Parliament abolished, was given more than 15 percent of the vote in the Netherlands and just one seat less than the ruling Christian Democrats, according to an exit poll.
In Britain, two right-wing parties opposed to the EU – the UK Independence Party and the British National Party – were predicted to get one-fifth of all votes, according to the predict09.eu website compiled by leading political scientists.
"It's clear from the Netherlands that the populist right is going to do well," says Wyn Grant, a politics professor at Warwick University in Central England. "It's a trend across Europe, and it's not surprising in a recession," he adds.
Most EU countries are deep in recession and this week unemployment figured showed almost one in 10 Europeans were jobless.
Sara Hagemann, a Danish analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre adds that extreme parties would get a much higher proportion of seats than in national elections. "Voters who turn out [in European elections] often have quite strong opinions about the EU," she says.
Though elections to the European Parliament habitually throw up a protest vote, this time around they could prove fatal to governments in at least two countries if the ruling elite perform as badly as predicted. Hungary's ruling socialists are so unpopular that a bad result could see their government fall apart.
But no leader is more vulnerable than Britain's Gordon Brown, who has seen support ebb not just from his Labour Party voters but from his own ministers. The Labour government, humiliated by revelations of mercenary expense claims by legislators, may struggle to stay afloat much longer if overall results are as poor as some predict.
On Friday, Brown was forced to reshuffle his remaining ministers after four big names quit in 72 hours. A terrible result when voting tallies are announced on Sunday evening could be the final straw, experts say.
"The results are going to be very bad for Labour; the question is, will they be disastrous," says Professor Grant. "If he's got 20 percent of vote, though bad, that will be seen as just enough. The problem is if he went as low as 16 percent," which could leave Labour in fourth place and Brown's mandate looking anachronistic.
A giant election, but does anybody care?
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.
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 predict09.eu 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.
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.
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."