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EU vote in closing stretch as far-right eyes gains

By AFP - Jun 10,2024 - Last updated at Jun 10,2024

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez casts his ballot for the European Parliament election at a polling station in Madrid, on Sunday (AFP photo)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Voting for the EU's next parliament entered its final stretch Sunday for millions of people, from Vilnius to Madrid, with early exit polls pointing to far-right gains at a pivotal time for the bloc.

Twenty-one of the bloc's 27 countries, including powerhouses France and Germany, were voting on the election's biggest day to help shape the European Union's direction over the next five years.

Preliminary results are due late Sunday, with exit polls putting far-right parties first in Austria and second in Germany — two of a string of countries where the anti-immigrant vote has been surging.

"Right now we are living in a scenario of uncertainty," Jaime Bajo, a sports centre operator, said as he cast his vote in Madrid.

"I can understand that people feel fear and vote with a hard mindset," said the 40-year-old, who predicted a "rise of extremist forces" in Europe.

The election comes as the continent is confronted with Russia's war in Ukraine, global trade tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and the prospect of a disruptive new Donald Trump presidency.

"In the current world situation, where everyone is trying to isolate each other, it's important to keep standing up for peace and democracy," said one Berlin voter, Tanja Reith, 52.

More than 360 million people were eligible to vote in the four-day election.

The bloc's next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen vying for a second term.

While centrist parties are predicted to keep most of the legislature's 720 seats, polls suggest they will be weakened by a stronger far-right pushing the bloc towards ultraconservatism.

European voters, hammered by a high cost of living and some fearing immigrants to be the source of social ills, are increasingly persuaded by populist messaging.

In Germany, exit polls pointed to a stinging defeat for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, with all three parties in his troubled coalition behind the conservatives and the far-right, exit polls showed.

On 14 per cent, Scholz’s Social Democrats trailed the Alternative for Germany at between 16 and 16.5 per cent, and well behind the conservative CDU-CSU bloc’s 29.5 per cent.

In Austria meanwhile, the far-right Freedom Party was leading the vote count according to exit polls, the first time the group has topped a nationwide ballot in the Alpine country.

Florentine Bonaert, a 32-year-old business owner in Vienna did not disclose who she voted for, but said “migration policy was incredibly important” to her — as well as climate change and its impact on future generations.

In the closely-watched race in France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally is predicted to score about 30 per cent, double the voting intentions for President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance party.

In the French city of Lyon, 83-year-old voter Albert Coulaudon said Macron was getting “mixed up” in too many international issues such as the war in Ukraine. “That scares me,” he said.

But in southern Toulouse, Martine Dorian, 76, said: “If tomorrow Europe disappears, there will be no France left either.”

In Italy the far-right ruling Brothers of Italy party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was expected to come out on top.

Meloni is being courted both by von der Leyen — who needs her backing for a second mandate — as well as Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who would like to form a far-right parliament supergroup.

 

War worries 

 

The Hungarian leader has stoked fears of the Ukraine war expanding to one between the West and Russia, blaming Brussels and NATO. As he cast his vote he framed it as a “pro-peace or pro-war election”.

But in eastern EU countries, the spectre of Russia’s threat loomed large.

“I want security, especially for the Baltic states. And greater support for Ukraine to end the war,” said Ieva Sterlinge, a 34-year-old Latvian doctor.

Likewise in Romania, psychologist Teodora Maia said she cast her vote on “the theme of war, which worries us all, and ecology”.

Polling data compiled by Politico suggest the centre-right EPP will win 173 seats in the legislature, with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats on 143 and the centrist Renew Europe on 75.

The main far-right grouping, the European Conservatives and Reformists, in which Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party sits, was projected to win 76 seats.

The smaller Identity and Democracy grouping that includes Le Pen’s RN was predicted to get 67.

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