EU Vote Looks Set to Strengthen Far-Right, Euroskeptics
Voters from three Eastern European nations and Malta go to the polls Saturday in European Parliament elections expected to boost eurosceptic parties despite a surprise setback for Dutch populists.
Czech voters return to the ballot box for a second day and are joined by their counterparts in Latvia, Slovakia and Malta as the mammoth EU elections, which will wind up on Sunday, continue to roll out across the 28-nation bloc.
With 26 million people out of work across the European Union, eurosceptic and far-right parties have picked up massive support on anti-immigration and anti-EU platforms.
Britain and the Netherlands kicked off the voting on Thursday but no results will be released until late Sunday, when the counting is done in all member states.
However Britain's anti-EU and anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) surged in local council elections which took place at the same time as the EU vote.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose party wants Britain to quit the European Union, said they would now be "serious players" in the European parliament elections.
Farage's party has shrugged off accusations of racism to strike a chord with a British electorate that widely views the EU as a meddlesome bureaucracy and fears that immigration from the 28-nation bloc is threatening jobs.
The latest opinion polls suggest far-right parties could secure almost 100 seats in the new parliament, trebling their number in the 751-seat assembly, and may top the polls in not only Britain but in France and Italy.
But the Netherlands' eurosceptic and fiercely anti-Islamic populist Geert Wilders stumbled Thursday.
His Party for Freedom scored just 12.2 percent of the vote on Thursday, down from 17 percent in 2009, exit polls showed.
Meanwhile in France, a survey forecast a Sunday landslide for the anti-immigration, populist National Front, with 23.5 percent of the vote.
In Ireland, anger over EU-imposed fiscal policies was expected to see a boost for anti-austerity candidates from Sinn Fein.
Some 400 million Europeans are eligible to vote in the polls, spread over four days in the EU's 28 member states, and which come as the bloc struggles for relevance in the aftermath of the eurozone crisis and grapples with the chaos on its eastern borders.
East bucks eurosceptic trend
But the eurosceptic fever gripping many of the EU's older members has failed to take hold in much of its eastern frontier, where memories of Soviet domination are still fresh among the bloc's newcomers.
Having anchored their security in the EU and NATO following the fall of the Iron Curtain and with a nervous eye on Russia following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea, most of eastern European states are expected to back pro-EU parties.
"The crisis in Ukraine may... push some voters to back mainstream parties and eschew those of a eurosceptic bent," Vit Benes, from the Prague-based Institute of International Relations, told AFP.
This leaves the prospect of an EU family split between a more pro-European east and an increasingly eurosceptic west.
Hungary, which votes Sunday, is expected to mark the only exception to the eastern trend, with a strong eurosceptic party - the far-right Jobbik.
Dubbed "neo-Nazi" by the European Jewish Congress and shunned even by the far-right National Front and Austria's Freedom party for its extremism, Jobbik has emerged as the second strongest political force in Hungary, with polls showing support of around 17 percent.
In the Czech Republic, two governing pro-EU parties are set to split 51 seats, with the populist ANO party poised for victory ahead of the leftwing Social Democrats.
This marks a turnaround from the country's decade under ex-president Vaclav Klaus, who governed until last year and was among Europe's most vehement EU haters.
"Euroscepticism is synonymous with selfishness. We receive a lot from the European Union, we should give a lot back as well," Prague civil servant Pavel Hamacek told AFP as his country headed to the polls.
Regional heavyweight Poland is among the most enthusiastic EU supporters. A recent Pew Research Centre poll showed 72 percent favoured the bloc.
Europhilia is particularly pronounced in the Baltic states, which were annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, and now fear a resurgent Russia.