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Anti-EU Factions Gain in Europe Polls

Ruling parties lose out as voters in a number of countries, fed up with status quo, elect more members from groups opposed to the union.

June 15, 2004|John Daniszewski and Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Dissatisfaction with national economies and the war in Iraq, as well as a continentwide malaise over the status quo, caused voters to rebuff established parties in the just-completed European Parliament elections, analysts said Monday.

In Britain, officials with Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party -- which also suffered losses in local council elections Thursday -- said the party was paying a price for its decision to lead the country into war to oust Saddam Hussein, but they predicted that voters would return to Labor in the next general election.

Both Labor and its chief rival, the Conservative Party, were embarrassed by the upstart U.K. Independence Party, which garnered nearly 17% of the European Parliament vote in Britain on a platform of withdrawing the nation from the European Union. Its total matched that of the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, traditionally Britain's third party. Labor drew about 23%, and the Conservatives 27%.

UKIP will have 12 seats in the new European Parliament, compared with its current three. It will be the dominant "Eurosceptic" party in the continentwide assembly, which divides its time between Brussels and the French city of Strasbourg.

"The British public are fed up with the old parties. They are fed up with being talked to in that simplistic manner," said Robert Kilroy-Silk, a former BBC announcer and talk show host who has led UKIP's resurgence. "They want their country back from Brussels, and we are going to get it back for them."

Noting the strength of UKIP, the Conservatives and the Greens, British media declared the vote a defeat for the status quo as well as a victory for those who oppose greater European integration. The news came during a week when European leaders are hoping to hammer out a constitution for the EU with the proper balance of powers between the organization and its member states.

The electoral results are likely to stiffen Blair's resolve to retain a right of veto in key policy areas such as defense and foreign affairs.

"This is the first British election, national or European, in which the combined Eurosceptic vote has outweighed that of the pro-Brussels parties," said London's conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph.

Eurosceptics and nationalists did well in several countries during the poll that took place Thursday in some countries and over the weekend in others. In Belgium, a far-right party, Vlaams Blok, came in second, while in Sweden, the new Junilistan, a party critical of Brussels, came in third.

Although Britain's was the sharpest anti-establishment vote, governing parties in Germany, France and Poland also suffered in what was billed as the largest transnational democratic election ever, in which more than 700 members of the European Parliament were chosen.

Voters appeared apathetic, with just 45% of the 25 EU member nations' 350 million voters participating. Some of the lowest participation levels were in the 10 countries admitted to the union a month ago. In the largest of these, Poland, only one-fifth of the voters cast a ballot, and the governing leftist party got only 9% of the total.

In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing Social Democrats got only 22% of the vote amid worries about the economy. Schroeder was frank about the outcome: "We can't gloss over the result. We've taken a clear defeat."

In Italy, where voter turnout was among the highest, the right-wing party of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suffered significant, but not devastating, losses.

Voters were angry with Berlusconi for his support of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq and were uneasy over high unemployment, analysts said.

Italian pollsters had predicted that the rescue of three Italian hostages held by Iraqi insurgents for two months would boost Berlusconi's electoral fortunes. The hostages were freed four days before the elections.

Regardless, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party fell below its previous levels, despite Berlusconi's boast that it would hold or gain ground. According to the latest tallies, Forza Italia took about 21% of the vote, compared with 25% in 1999.

But smaller parties allied with Berlusconi registered modest gains, as did a large coalition of leftist parties led by Romano Prodi, the European Commission head rumored to be planning to challenge Berlusconi in future Italian elections.

Prodi's showing, analysts said, was not sufficiently impressive to ensure his ability to defeat the prime minister, who now leads Italy's longest-lasting government since World War II.

"Italy turned its back on [Berlusconi]; the same Italy that only three years ago gave him a personal plebiscite and an epic triumph

"But if Italy turns its back on [Berlusconi], it doesn't do so in order to turn toward the opposition."

Leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera branded Berlusconi the big loser of the vote, and Prodi the No. 2 loser. "Prodi is not the candidate," Corriere said.

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