Apathy, protests mark EU vote

The European Union’s massive democratic exercise of electing its new parliament was marked by widespread apathy and protest votes as citizens of the 25 EU nations punished their governments for everything from high unemployment to involvement in Iraq.

The European Union’s massive democratic exercise of electing its new parliament was marked by widespread apathy and protest votes as citizens of the 25 EU nations punished their governments for everything from high unemployment to involvement in Iraq.

Across the continent, voters voiced discontent by casting ballots for opposition and fringe parties.

But most of the 350 million EU citizens eligible to vote didn’t bother to even cast a protest ballot. Only 150 million people voted in the four-day election that ended Sunday.

Turnout for the historic vote – the first since the EU took in 10 new members in May – hit a record low of 44.2%.

The eight new members from the former Soviet bloc showed particularly little appetite for the vote. Preliminary results showed turnout among the newcomers was a mere 28%, despite enthusiastic showings of 82% and 71% respectively in new members Malta and Cyprus.

Voters punished leaders in the Netherlands, and to some degree Italy for getting involved in Iraq – but also turned their ire on German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, Europe’s leading opponents of the war.

Across the continent, the outcome highlighted anxieties about the expanding union, with anti-EU parties gaining ground in Britain, Sweden, and even the Czech Republic, in the former Communist nation’s maiden outing in an EU-wide vote.

Overall, centre-right parties won, with the European People’s Party taking 269 seats in the 732-member EU assembly and retaining its plurality.

The centre-left European Socialist Party, which includes lawmakers from Blair’s beleaguered Labour Party and Schroeder’s Social Democrats, finished second with 199 seats. The third-largest group in the EU assembly was the Liberal Democrats with 66.

The Greens won 39 seats, while the left-leaning and communist European United Left group won 37 seats.

Anti-EU parties made a major impact, riding a wave of high voter discontent over how the European Union is run.

The election result means that the European Parliament will be more polarised than ever, with a growing number of anti-EU parties, including far-right anti-immigrant members, pitted against the traditional pro-European parties on sensitive issues like approval of a draft EU constitution.

In many countries, voters used the election as a report card for their national governments.

Among those who fared poorly were the ruling parties in Germany and France, where voters protested rising unemployment, sluggish economies and painful reforms to trim budget deficits.

Schroeder’s party slumped to its worst nationwide performance in post-World War II Germany, taking just 21.5%, compared to 30.7% in the last European election five years ago, according to official results. The opposition Christian Democrats won 44.5%.

Germany has the largest contingent at the EU assembly with 99 seats.

The main opposition Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, polled 44.5% – down slightly from 48.7% in 1999.

In France, Chirac’s Union for the Popular Movement, was projected to win about 16.5% of the vote, a far second behind the Socialist Party, with a projected 30%, according to Sofres polling firm.

Former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius called the vote a “considerable setback” for the current premier, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who came under pressure to resign after the regional elections.

Other domestic governments also fared poorly, including those in Austria, Denmark and Poland, where two anti-EU parties combined for 30% of the vote.

In Sweden the June List, an EU-opposition party created specifically for the election, garnered nearly 15% of the votes in an exit poll by Swedish public television broadcaster SVT, though the governing Social Democrats didn’t lose any seats.

The Greek conservatives were one of the few ruling parties to emerge unscathed after Premier Costas Caramanlis scored a significant win, polls showed. In Spain, the ruling Socialists won 43.3%, edging the conservatives who took 41.3% – an apparent vindication of the Socialists’ opposition to Spain’s role in the Iraq war.

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