Tens of millions of Europeans went to the polls on Sunday on the last day of elections for the new Parliament.

Nineteen of the European Union's 25 member states are voting in the biggest transnational elections ever held, and the first since the bloc's expansion into the former communist eastern Europe.

EU leaders have pulled out all the stops to persuade people to vote for 732 members of parliament, the EU's only directly-elected body.

"Naturally I'm hoping for a high election turnout, however I am rather sceptical," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder acknowledged as he cast his ballot.

The polls could provide bad news for many national leaders: Schroeder faces punishment for painful economic reforms, while French President Jacques Chirac may get another slap from Socialists to add to a rout in March local ballots.

Joining seasoned politicians in the race for a seat in the Strasbourg-based assembly were a quirky swathe of candidates, ranging from athletes to television stars and even an astronaut and a porn star.

Iraq conflict

Seven countries have already voted over the first three days of polling - Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday, the Czech Republic and Ireland from Friday, and Italy, Latvia and Malta on Saturday. Italy was voting for a second day on Sunday.

Results are set to be published after the last polling stations close at 2000 GMT on Sunday. The polls are widely expected to leave the centre right in charge of the EU assembly, with Social Democrats in second place.

Campaign themes in the polls varied widely from country to country, with local issues often dominating as opposed to European-level policy debate. Many see the polls as mid-term tests for national elections.

"In the beginning, elections [in former Soviet bloc states] were something exciting and exclusive after decades of communism but that enthusiasm is wearing off"

Bohumil Dolezal,
Czeck political analyst

The Iraq conflict weighed on the polls in many countries, for example in Britain where Prime Minister Tony Blair openly conceded that his decision to go to war with the United States had cost him votes.

In Spain Roman Catholic church leaders urged voters to reject resolutely secular parties, in a reference to the ruling Socialist Party's refusal to back a mention of Europe's Christian roots in the future EU constitution.

But many eyes are on the fate of a number of high-profile eurosceptic parties, some of whose leaders claim that they could hold the balance of power in the EU assembly if they joined forces.

Eurosceptics

These include the UK Independence Party, which has thrown a spanner into the British election works by threatening to eat into opposition conservatives' support while giving Blair a serious headache.

Other countries with strong anti-EU forces include heavyweight EU newcomer Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic, where exit polls suggested eurosceptic Civic Democrats (ODS) could be heading to top the polls.

Gerhard Schroeder (L) says he is
sceptical about voter turnout

Turnout is also being watched closely in the polls: recent forecasts have suggested it could dip below the EU-wide figure 49.8% registered at the last ballots in 1999, although the most recent figures suggest it could just scrape back above the psychologically important 50% mark.

Concern focuses in particular on the 10 mostly ex-communist newcomers, where just 40% of voters are expected to cast their ballots.

In Slovakia, for example, barely a quarter of voters were expected to vote, according to an eve-of-poll survey. In Latvia barely 40% voted.

Experts said the former Soviet Union bloc states were already getting tired of democracy, only 15 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

"In the beginning, elections were something exciting and exclusive after decades of communism but that enthusiasm is wearing off," said political analyst Bohumil Dolezal in Prague.