Brussels: Centre-right parties retained control of the European Parliament in an election that ended on Sunday with a record low turnout but which spared most big national governments from embarrassing defeats.
Partial results showed the European People’s Party crushed the Socialists and would remain the main group in parliament, strengthening its ability to set the agenda in an assembly that passes many of the European Union’s laws and its budget.
The governing centre-right groups won in Germany, France, Poland and Italy, and Green parties did well on a bad night for the Socialists, who failed to cash in on widespread discontent with Europe’s handling of the global economic crisis.
Turnout was a record-low 43%. Exit polls and early results showed ruling parties beaten or heading for defeat in some of the countries worst hit by the crisis - Britain, Ireland, Latvia, Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria and Spain.
But EU leaders could breathe a sigh of relief that far-right parties did not fare better, despite gains in some countries such as Hungary, and welcomed the stability in the 736-seat parliament as it embarks on financial regulatory reforms.
“I don’t expect any major difficulties in decision-making. The composition of this parliament will not be significantly different from the previous one,” EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said.
The victory of centre-right forces after four days of voting is likely to help Jose Manuel Barroso, a conservative, win a new term as president of the EU’s executive European Commission - a post that requires the parliament’s approval.
The European People’s Party was on course to win 267 seats in parliament compared to the Socialists’ 159.
“It is bitterly disappointing, we had hoped for a better result,” said Martin Schulz, head of the Party of European Socialists. “In most countries it went pretty bad for us.”
Pressure on some governments
Many voters are worried by rising unemployment and say the EU has done too little to tackle the economic crisis, although it eventually poured in money to try to revive Europe’s economy. Others regard it as having little impact on their daily lives.
Critics of the 27-state European Union may seek to use the low turnout among the 375-million electorate as evidence the parliament lacks legitimacy and the bloc has lost contact with its 495 million citizens, many of whom voted on national issues.
Although there are no formal or direct consequences for governing parties defeated in the election, they could face increased pressure for changes of policy or personnel.
The British National Party won its first seat in the parliament and far-right groups appeared to have gained in the Netherlands, Romania and Hungary but did not make as big an impact as some political analysts had expected.
“The extreme parties are very heterogeneous, they will hardly represent a cohesive bloc,” said Antonio Missiroli of the European Policy Centre.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives remained the strongest party despite losses, boosting her bid to retain power in a national election in September.
President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP won in France with about 28% of votes. In a big surprise, a coalition of Green politicians led by 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit took some 16% of the vote.
Britain’s Labour was expected to be defeated, increasing Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s woes after a scandal over national parliamentarians’ perks forced him into a cabinet reshuffle. The Eurosceptic Conservatives were expected to make gains.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was headed for a modest victory, defying a deep recession and scandals about his love life to tighten his grip on power, exit polls showed.
Ireland’s ruling Fianna Fail was heading for defeat, but it was unclear whether the Libertas party which opposes the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty would win a seat. The outcome is set to increase strains on Ireland’s government.
Of the ruling parties that lost, Hungary’s Socialists could suffer the biggest repercussions. The centre-right opposition’s success could destabilise the ruling minority government and its planned reforms, political analysts said.