Apathy clouds EU voting

Voting for a new European Parliament has been clouded by apathy and a surge in support for Eurosceptic parties.

    Voter turnout could sink to a record low

    Tens of millions of Europeans went to

    the polls on Sunday on the last day of elections for the new


    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


    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


    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


    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


    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.


    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


    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%


    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.



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