Early results and exit polls from EU elections in the Netherlands and Britain suggest parties who supported the Iraq war are being punished. Voting has also been marred by a row between Brussels and The Hague.
EU whistleblower van Buitenen is making a triumphant return
Voters in Britain and the Netherlands went to the polls on Thursday to cast votes in the European parliamentary elections. Earlier, the European Union executive in Brussels, the European Commission, appealed to all member states not to publish election results until Sunday night, after polls have closed in all 25 member states. But the Netherlands released its figures early, defying the directive.
Those initial results, along with commentary and exit polls from Britain, suggest that the Iraq war is having wide-ranging ramifications for the European election. Left-leaning parties registered gains in the Netherlands, while Tony Blair's Labor Party, which supported the Iraq war, was left licking its wounds after likely losses in local elections in Britain on Thursday. A BBC exit poll released Thursday showed the Conservative party mirroring their landslide local wins in the European Parliament vote.
"Iraq and the worries over Iraq have been a shadow over our support, but, in the end, you have to take decisions that are right and you have to see them through," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters.
Conservatives slip in the Netherlands
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, a preliminary tally of 94 percent of the votes showed a tight, head-to-head running between the governing Christian Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats. Both parties obtained seven of the country's total 27 seats in the EU Parliament.
One of the big winners is a politician known both inside and outside of Europe: Paul van Buitenen. As an EU functionary in 1999, whistleblower van Buitenen uncovered irregularities and corruption in the European Commission, ultimately leading to the resignation of the entire executive and its president, Jacques Santer.
The Dutch haven't forgotten van Buitenen's act. With Thursday's election, his new party, Transparent Europe, will enter the European Parliament for the first time with two seats. The 46-year-old political rebel scored solid results all across the Netherlands, drawing 7 percent of the overall votes. The first commentaries after the vote suggest that van Buitenen will bring something to the European Parliament many feel was missing in the past: a strong internal critic.
An unconventional figure, Buitenen ran on a simple reform platform: "I'm not good looking, I have no money, but my message was clear ... I'm for transparency," he said after the news came his party had won two seats.
Thursday's election also sent a clear-cut message to the Dutch governing coalition. The Christian Democrats, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, succeeded in garnering 25 percent of the votes. But its junior partners both tallied huge losses, with the business-friendly VVD falling to 13 percent and the centrist D66 party to 4 percent.
With their losses, the conservatives helped give the opposition parties a slight gain, pushing the Netherlands slightly back to the left. Compared to the last European election five years ago, the Christian Democrats lost 2.6 percent of voters, while the Social Democrats improved their standing by 3.5 percent, bringing about 24 percent of the Dutch seats in parliament under their control.
But the gains made by the Social Democrats weren't as big as they had hoped for. And on Thursday, Prime Minister Balkenende said he was pleased with the results. He had reason to be, as many of the polls released in recent days suggest the Social Democrats would make greater gains than they did. For that reason, he said, he was "thankful."
The Dutch government had another reason to celebrate, too. Though turnout was relatively low compared to federal elections, the 38 percent turnout was considerably higher than 1999's 30 percent, showing an increased interest among the Dutch populace for European issues. Balkenende described the turnout rate as a "success for Europe." Still, the turnout remained lower than the EU average.
European Parliament in Strasbourg
Row with Brussels over results
Nevertheless, a major conflict between The Hague and the European Commission is casting a shadow on the results. In the runup to the election, the Commission demanded that member states withhold the official polling results until all polls have closed across the 25-member EU. But on Thursday, Dutch officials began releasing results shortly after polling stations closed.
The Dutch justified the move, which has been a source of strife between the Commission and the northern European country for weeks now, by stating that results in the country are released by different communities and that there is no official overall result. Still, Commission officials fear the availability of the results could sway voters in other EU member states that haven't hit the polls yet. In previous days, the Commission said it would consider suing the Netherlands at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg if it released early figures.
The Czechs and Irish went to the polls on Friday to cast their votes for Strasbourg, with the remaining EU member states planning to vote on Saturday and Sunday. So far, no countries other than the Netherlands have said they will ignore the EU Commission's Sunday embargo for releasing results.