BRUSSELS — Direct elections to the European Parliament are barely 15 years old and have been of only marginal importance. But results of Sunday's voting for the 567-seat house have sent political shock waves rumbling through the Continent's Western half.
In part, the election had greater significance because the stakes are higher: Not only is Europe in the midst of its greatest transition since it was first divided by the Cold War more than four decades ago, but the European Parliament has also begun to assume some genuine power.
For many, however, the importance was not only that moderate, mainstream parties managed to keep control of the remote Strasbourg, France-based Parliament, which serves as the European Union's legislature, at a time when Western Europe has again begun flirting with political extremes. It also quickly became clear that the effect of Sunday's election results on the national political landscapes of the 12 member countries was considerable.
Although he wasn't even a candidate for the Parliament, the biggest single winner may have been German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, now in the midst of a tough Bundestag reelection campaign.
Surveys in recent weeks had indicated that Kohl's Christian Democrats were gaining ground on the front-running opposition Social Democrats. But the extent of his party's strength in winning almost half of Germany's 99 seats in the European Parliament was largely unexpected.
The chancellor, who a few short months ago hardly seemed to have a chance at reelection, suddenly faced the problem Monday of dampening the euphoria of excited supporters. "Yesterday's victory doesn't mean we can relax," Kohl said. "We have to fight for every vote."
Only the abysmal showing of Kohl's junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, provided cause for worry. The Free Democrats--the party of Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel and his predecessor, Hans-Dietrich Genscher--won fewer votes than the retooled East German Communist Party and failed to get the 5% necessary under German law to win any seats.
The result was a shock for a party that has been in every Bonn government since 1969; it left the chancellor's supporters concerned, because without the Free Democrats, Kohl's own party would find it extremely difficult to build a majority coalition in October.
The reasons for Kohl's turnaround seem twofold and have little to do with his party's European policies:
* Germany's gradual emergence from its deepest recession since the \o7 Wirtschaftswunder--\f7 Germany's miraculous postwar ascension to economic power--has revived confidence in his leadership.
* A series of campaign blunders by the Social Democrats. These include a damaging internal feud in the party's platform-drafting committee last April and comments by party leader Rudolf Scharping that made him appear a poor loser after last month's presidential elections.
Another definite winner in Monday's election was Italy's new premier, Silvo Berlusconi, and his Forza Italia (Go Italy), a party that is less than a year old but already the bulwark of the government and a magnet for discontented voters. With Berlusconi heading the ticket, Forza Italia won 30.6% of the European Parliament votes, an increase of almost 50% over its winning general election performance in March. His controversial coalition allies, the federal Northern League (6.6%) and the neo-fascist National Alliance (12.5%), both lost ground compared with their showings in March.
The Italian vote gave a powerful endorsement to Berlusconi's search for free-market change and government efficiency. It also reaffirmed the Democratic Party of the Left, the former Communist Party, as the strongest opposition force with 19.1%.
Achille Occhetto had led the Democratic Party of the Left to a new name and a new image but proved unable to overcome its also-ran status. On Monday, he quit, acknowledging that the party needs new leadership to remain a viable alternative to conservative rule.
But if Kohl and Berlusconi were winners, the biggest losers in Sunday's election were easily British Prime Minister John Major and his Spanish counterpart, Felipe Gonzalez.
In an admittedly low turnout, Major's Conservative Party managed to gather only 28% of the vote, the worst Tory showing in nationwide polling since 1945.
The results left Labor as the largest single national party represented in the Strasbourg Parliament, with 62 of Britain's 87 seats. The Conservatives will have 18 seats. "The fact is," said acting Labor Party leader Margaret Beckett, "that last night's results showed the mantle of trust has passed firmly to Labor."
Spain's Gonzalez had limped to a new term in elections a year ago by outpointing Popular Party conservatives headed by Jose Maria Aznar. On Sunday, voters sent Gonzalez--who has been in power for a dozen years--an unmistakable message, sending Conservatives to Strasbourg by a 4-3 margin. Observers in Madrid say the conservative victory could force early elections in Spain, either this fall or next spring.
Marshall reported from Brussels and Montalbano reported from Rome. Times staff writers Marjorie Miller in Bonn and William Tuohy in London and Isabelle Maelcamp of The Times' Brussels bureau contributed to this report.