Friday, June 21, 2024

Hundreds of millions head to polls on final day of European elections

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Hundreds of millions of voters go to the polls on Sunday in European parliament elections that are expected to tilt the assembly further to the radical and far right, shaping the continent’s future course.

Voters in most EU member states, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland, are called to the polls on Sunday, the final day of a four-day election cycle that began in the Netherlands on Thursday.

In the first European election since Britain left the EU, voters are being asked to elect 720 lawmakers to the world’s only directly elected transnational parliament. Opinion polls suggest the mainstream, pro-European groups will retain their majority, but see their clout and influence challenged like never before, with nationalist and far-right parties on course to gain a record number of seats.

Once derided as a talking-shop, the European parliament has gained significant powers over the last two decades. MEPs are joint legislators with national government ministers on a swathe of EU policies, such as climate action, artificial intelligence, workers’ rights and farm subsidies. The parliament, which sits in Brussels and Strasbourg, will also have the final say on whether the German centre-right politician, Ursula von der Leyen, gets a coveted second-term as European Commission president, one of the most powerful positions in European politics.

Politician Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy responds to the provisional results of the election of Dutch members for the European parliament. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/REX/Shutterstock

The largest bloc is likely to remain von der Leyen’s centre-right European People’s party, which is expected to roughly maintain its 176 seats in a parliament that is slightly larger than the outgoing assembly. The centre-left Socialists and Democrats group should retain their second place with about 139 seats. But the centrist Renew group and Greens are forecast to lose seats, dragged down by the weakness of national parties in the two biggest member states, France and Germany.

In Germany, which will elect 96 MEPs, the Greens – part of an unpopular coalition government led by Socialist Olaf Scholz – have paid an electoral price for controversies over domestic climate laws. The German Greens are expected to lose some of their existing 25 seats, meaning the wider European parliament group is likely to sink back from the historic fourth place it won in 2019 on the back of protests for climate action across Europe.

In France, which will send 81 MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg, French president Emmanuel Macron is polling far behind Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, which is expected to repeat its feat of topping the poll with an even bigger lead than in 2019 or 2014. The weakness of Macron’s party could see the centrist Renew group – dominated by French MEPs – lose its traditional third place.

The European parliament will have the final say on whether Ursula von der Leyen gets a second-term as European Commission president. Photograph: Sven Hoppe/AP

The Renew faction could be supplanted by the nationalist, hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists, thanks to the rising fortunes of Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, increasingly seen as the kingmaker of European politics.

The latest polls suggest Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is on course to triple its percentage share of the vote, at the expense of her coalition partners, the far-right League.

While Le Pen has made overtures to Meloni to create a nationalist “super-group”, most analysts expect the Italian leader to shun that alliance in favour of a smaller, more coherent right-wing group that could work with von der Leyen’s commission. Polls suggest the nationalist and far-right parties could return a record 165 MEPs, but these are likely to remain scattered over two, possibly three groups as well as unaffiliated MEPs, blunting its influence.

Observers will be watching whether Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán chooses to align his Fidesz MEPs to a right-wing alliance. Fidesz, which has 12 seats, has been politically homeless since quitting the centre-right EPP in 2021, before they were kicked out over concerns about Hungary’s authoritarian drift.

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In the Netherlands, Left and Green politicians hailed a narrow lead in exit polls on Thursday over the far-right Freedom party, although the margin of error also suggested a tie. In Thursday’s Dutch vote an exit poll showed the Green-Left-Labour alliance winning eight of the Netherlands’ 31 seats, with Geert Wilders’ PVV on seven seats, up from one in 2019. But the margin of error of the poll, conducted by the Dutch National Broadcaster NOS, was one seat.

Nevertheless, Frans Timmermans, parliamentary leader of the alliance, said: “It is not at all a foregone conclusion that the radical right will win these elections. Look at what the Netherlands is doing? Do the same.”

Turnout will be a keenly watched metric in the election: the 2019 vote, which took place against a backdrop of the UK’s chaotic departure from the EU and tensions with Donald Trump’s White House, saw turnout reach 50.6%, the highest for 25 years. This election also sees an expansion in youth voting with Belgium and Germany joining Austria and Malta in giving 16-year-olds the vote.

The European parliament has attempted to motivate young voters with a powerful campaign video featuring older people recalling the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The Use your Vote video had been viewed more than half a billion times on social media, TV, cinemas and football stadiums in the five weeks to 2 June.

An estimated 361 million people are voting during the four-day election cycle that ends at 11pm CET on Sunday when Italian polls close. European parliament officials expect to have a fairly definitive picture of the next parliament by about 1am on Monday CET (midnight BST), with predicted results appearing earlier in the evening.

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