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European voters batter governing parties in EU elections

Monday, June 14, 2004

LONDON -- European voters punished leaders in Britain, Italy and the Netherlands for getting involved in Iraq and turned their ire on the war's chief opponents in Germany and France over economic and social issues, projections showed Sunday.

The 25-nation vote, spread out over four days, also revealed anxieties about the newly expanded European Union itself with a surprisingly dismal turnout.

Among the few that did well were Spain's Socialists, who recently withdrew troops from Iraq after a backlash over a March 11 terrorist attack. The Socialists -- surprise victors in elections after the bombings -- won new legitimacy by emerging on top in the European parliamentary vote as well.

The continent-wide democratic exercise, which ended with 19 countries voting on Sunday, came at a crucial time in the development of the European Union. The bloc added 10 members in May, largely from Eastern Europe, and leaders hope to agree on a new constitution later this month.

But turnout was a record low of 44.2 percent and 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 28.7 percent, despite enthusiastic showings of 82 percent and 71 percent respectively in new members Malta and Cyprus.

Across Europe, the outcome highlighted anxieties about the expanding union, with anti-EU parties projected to do well in Britain, Sweden, and even the Czech Republic and Poland, former communist nations participating in their first EU-wide vote.

"Europe looks distant to us here," 24-year-old streetsweeper Gorka Esparza said in downtown Madrid.

Overall, center-right parties won, taking between 247 and 277 seats in the 732-member European Parliament, according to preliminary projections. The center-left group, which includes lawmakers from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party and Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, finished second -- with an expected 189 to 209 seats.

Blair's Labour Party also came in third in local elections held simultaneously Thursday in England and Wales. The results were widely perceived in Britain as a rebuke for Blair's increasingly unpopular support for President Bush over Iraq. Some party officials said they feared they might lose the next national election, expected next year.

In the Netherlands, where the deployment of 1,400 troops to Iraq was a key issue in Thursday's vote, preliminary results showed gains for leftist opposition parties.

The European Parliament cannot introduce legislation, but its powers have strengthened dramatically since its first elections in 1979. It has EU budget approval and influence over legislation on trade, environment and consumer affairs. Legislators shuttle between sessions in Strasbourg, France, and Brussels, Belgium.

Some quirky candidates also failed to make it into the usually staid parliament. Estonians roundly rejected the Res Publica party, which included supermodel Carmen Kass as a candidate. And the party of porn star Nora Baumberger, better known by the name Dolly Buster, gained only 0.7 percent of vote in the Czech Republic.

The Iraq war split Europe, with Blair, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and then-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar strongly backing the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. France and Germany led the opposition.

Aznar's party was ousted after the bombing and new Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sought a strong result to dispel the impression that he won power on more than a protest vote. He got a narrow win -- 43.3 percent compared to 41.3 percent for the opposition Popular Party.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the country's largest, was projected to get 20.5 percent of the vote, down from 25.2 percent in the previous European election in 1999, according to a poll for RAI state TV. However, three government coalition parties confirmed or improved their performance.

Berlusconi sent 3,000 Italian troops to help in rebuilding Iraq, though most Italians had opposed the war.

But in Germany and France, leaders who opposed the war nevertheless took a beating over local issues.

Schroeder's Social Democrats saw their share of the German vote fall to 21.5 percent compared to 30.7 percent five years ago, their worst performance since World War II. The opposition Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, took 44.5 percent the vote.

Schroeder's popularity has waned over unemployment that has passed 10 percent and his drive to trim social programs.

In France, Chirac's conservative Union for a Popular Movement, with about 16.5 percent of the vote, finished far behind the Socialist Party, which garnered 30 percent, according to the Sofres polling firm.

Polls indicated many voters were angry about Chirac's reforms of pensions and other social programs.


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