Disaffection Dominates European Voting
By STEPHEN CASTLE
Published: June 7, 2009
BRUSSELS — Mainstream liberal politicians failed to turn the global economic crisis into new momentum in the European Parliament on Sunday, as voters across 27 countries tended instead to support either the dominant center-right coalitions or vent their dissatisfaction by voting for fringe groups.
Turnout at the end of four days of voting was a record low. Just 43 percent of about 388 million eligible voters participated, reflecting what analysts across the European Union were identifying as frustration and waning support for European integration.
Voters were selecting 736 deputies for the European Parliament, an institution with growing powers but still a low profile. Such votes are often seen more as barometers of support for individual national governments than as indicators of power shifts.
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s alliance of center-right parties was down from its performance in the last European elections in 2004 but well ahead of the Social Democrats, with gains for the liberal Free Democratic Party.
But France’s governing center-right party, led by President Nicolas Sarkozy, increased its share of the vote 12 percent over 2004, with the socialist opposition slumping, early results showed.
Britain’s center-left Labor Party was braced for disastrous results, with its vote in some regions down 9 percent, further weakening the position of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society Institute in Brussels, said two striking features of the elections were the failure of the left to make a significant impact and the advances by the far-right and other fringe parties.
“At a time of crisis,” she said, “people often lose faith in the established political parties, but they will typically move to the left when there is the prospect of higher unemployment, in the hope that the state will look after them.”
“This is a wake-up call to politicians,” she added. “People no longer believe the narrative, particularly from the left, of how to organize the economy and society.”
The center-left is in power in Britain, Spain and Portugal and in a coalition in Germany, and has therefore taken much of the blame for the economic crisis. In France and Italy, where it is in the opposition, it has struggled to overcome internal divisions.
By contrast, the far-right British National Party won its first seat in Britain, and the far right was making gains in the Netherlands, where the anti-Islam party led by Geert Wilders won about 15 percent of the vote, according to early results. Exit polls predicted the Austrian far-right Freedom Party would double its vote from its showing in 2004, to 13 percent, while in Denmark the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party was also projected to double its 2004 tally.
In Italy, exit polls projected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right as having about 38 percent of the vote, a two-digit lead over the center-left, in spite of a campaign season dominated by speculation over the nature of Mr. Berlusconi’s relationship with an 18-year-old woman.
Within Mr. Berlusconi’s coalition, the Northern League, known for its anti-immigrant rhetoric, made gains with a projected 10 percent of the vote.
The Greens boosted their vote in France, while Sweden’s Pirate Party, which wants to legalize file-sharing via the Internet and reform patent law, was predicted to win its first seat. Euro-skeptic parties prospered, including the U.K. Independence Party, which is seeking to take Britain out of the European Union.
In a whole swathe of policy areas, the European Parliament has equal power, with national governments, to make new laws for the bloc. But with political parties conducting largely national campaigns, the elections may have appeared irrelevant to many voters who know that their votes could not change the makeup of any national government.
Voters in Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain punished governing political parties to varying degrees for the economic downturn.
“These results do not alter the government, but we must seriously examine what the next day holds,” Greece’s health minister, Dimitris Avramopoulos, told the Mega Channel, a private television network, after the release of exit polls.
Anthee Carassava contributed reporting from Athens, and Rachel Donadio from Rome.