Brussels, Belgium – As voting draws near a close across the European Union, the first exit polls suggest this year’s European Parliament elections have seen a higher turnout than usual, and the power balance is likely to change in the chamber.
Taking place against the backdrop of a rise in support for far-right and nationalist parties at the national level in recent years, the election has been largely portrayed as a battle between the pro-European establishment and its Eurosceptic challengers.
More than 400 million Europeans in 28 member states were called to the ballot box over four days to elect 751 members of the EU’s only directly-elected body. Brexiting Britain and the Netherlands kicked off the elections, which take place every five years on Thursday. On Sunday, 21 countries voted and results are expected through the night.
The European Parliament is responsible for choosing the next president of the European Commission, shares responsibility for deciding on the EU’s annual budget with the Council of the EU, as well as oversees the work of EU institutions. While it can’t initiate legislation, which is the purview of the European Commission, it can adopt and amend it.
European Parliament elections are normally considered second-tier polls by citizens, who have traditionally used them to vent their frustrations with their own national governments with protest votes. Turnout has been steadily declining since they were first held in 1979.
But turnout estimates suggest this year might buck that trend.
By noon, 14.4 percent of eligible voters had gone to the polls in Poland, almost twice as many as in 2014.
By early evening, an EU spokesman put the official turnout estimate at 51 percent for 27 countries except for the UK.
At the last European Parliament elections in 2014, 42.6 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.
The European Parliament’s two largest political groups, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are both on course to lose 39 and 38 seats respectively according to an aggregation of 14 national estimates and voting intentions where these were not available – unsettling their dominance and making this parliament the most fragmented so far.
The EPP, whose lead candidate is Manfred Weber of the German Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), is currently the largest group in the European Parliament and holds all three EU top jobs.
As alliances tend to form on an issue-by-issue basis, this means it might become harder to form majorities.
There are eight political groups national parties can currently join.
A new group composed by centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance movement and Romania’s USR-PLUS so far has more than 100 seats. French polls suggest Macron is second to Marine Le Pen.
“For the first time in 40 years, the [EPP and the S&D] will no longer have a majority,” Guy Verhofstadt, the president of the ALDE group, told journalists at a press conference. “No solid pro-European majority is possible without centrist groups.”
Another big winner so far compared with the last legislature is the Greens group, projected to take 69 seats, mostly thanks to the German result.
“To forge a stable EU the Greens are going to indispensable,” said Ska Keller, the lead European Commission candidate for the group.
The centrist, liberal Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens are likely to play a more central role in future decision-making.
The leftist European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) is projected to lose 10 seats.
Far-right parties led by Italy’s firebrand interior minister and co-deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini are projected to win 57 seats, 21 more than in the last legislature.
Alongside a number of other Eurosceptic and nationalist parties that are part of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group such as the Polish Law and Justice, they wish to take power back from Brussels and devolve it back to national governments.
However, these parties are highly divided on some issues such as the budget, the role of Russia and migration, raising questions about how coherent a front they can form in the parliament.
Preliminary results: watching the socialists
In the Netherlands, exit polls put the Labour Party slightly ahead of the ruling conservative VVD party led by Mark Rutte. The two are polling at 18 and 15 percent respectively, a surprise result that will bolster first Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, who heads the Labour party and is the S&D’s lead candidate for the presidency of the European Commission.
The upstart far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) and its flamboyant 36-year-old leader, Thierry Baudet, were seen as Rutte’s main rival after the party came first in provincial elections earlier this year. It lags in fourth place.
In Germany, the CDU/CSU centre-right political alliance which includes Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s party remains the largest party with 28 percent of the share, but it’s the Greens who appear to be on course to bring home the best results, polling at 22 percent.
“That doesn’t mean we will see dramatic changes in the balance of power of the political forces in terms of what we were expecting a few days ago,” Doru Frantescu, the CEO of the Brussels-based think-tank Votewatch Europe, told Al Jazeera.
“We’re seeing changes on the left between the political families, with the Greens taking more seats than expected but taking these seats from the socialists,” he explained, adding that crash of the socialists appears to be bigger than expected, despite the gains made in the Netherlands, which has only five seats in the European Parliament.
“This is signalled by the result in Germany, where the Greens have for the first time passed the socialists.”
Meanwhile, in Austria, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) doesn’t appear to have suffered massive electoral losses following the “Ibiza-gate” video – it polls third at 17.5 percent, behind the Austrian People’s Party (34.5 percent) and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (23.5 percent).
The FPO, a key ally in Salvini’s coalition for a “Europe of nations”, was hit by a scandal after a secretly-filmed video emerged of its leader and Austria’s vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. The Austrian government witnessed a slew of resignations of far-right ministers and faces a no-confidence vote on Monday.