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Europe

Sports Compete With Politics in European Weekend

With both EU parliament elections and the Euro 2004 soccer championships taking place on Saturday and Sunday, this is a truly European weekend. But it could also turn into a choice between sports or politics.

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The EU doesn't generate the same kind of enthusiasm.

Nearly 349 million people are eligible to vote in this week's EU elections to select the 732 members for the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Taking place in 25 different countries and spanning four days, it is the largest transnational democratic election ever held.

Voting began on Thursday in Britain and the Netherlands and continued on Friday with the Czech Republic and Ireland. On Saturday Italy, Latvia and Malta voted. On Sunday, the 19 other member states will cast their ballots. Results will be released late Sunday evening after the last polling stations have closed in all the countries.

Wahlurne mit Wahlzettel

Germany votes in EU elections on Sunday, June 13.

The election is the parliament's sixth direct vote since 1979, but the first since the bloc expanded to include 10 new members from eastern and southern Europe. There are 14,670 candidates running. The number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is allocated to each country based on its population. Germany, the largest nation in the bloc, has 99 seats, while Malta, the smallest, has five.

Stiff sporting competition

Despite the fact that the candidates elected represent Europeans' interests in the EU's legislative body for five years, participation in the elections has declined steadily since the first vote in 1979 when turnout was 63 percent. The last election in 1999 produced only 49 percent. Analysts are predicting an even lower number of voters this year, despite a high interest in the 10 new states, where the elections are still viewed as a novelty.

Enttäuschte portugiesische Fußballfans

Thousands of Portuguese soccer fans were disappointed after their team lost to Greece on June 12.

Considerably higher is the interest in this weekend's major sporting competition, the European Championships in Portugal. With 16 teams competing from both the new and old Europe, the soccer showdown is expected to draw some seven billion television viewers. Nearly one million tickets have already been sold for the 31 matches starting June 12 and running through July 4.

Spotlight on sport

Although the games, including Saturday's opener between Portugal and Greece and Sunday's much-hyped clash between France and England, take place in the evening after most of the polls have closed, the fear is that the media has chosen to focus on the sporting event rather than the elections.

In Germany, the most populous EU member, no major television station is offering prime-time coverage of the vote. Instead the most-watched public channels are going into overtime to show the soccer games -- even when Germany is not playing. They are featuring interviews with players, coaches and experts, special reports on the history of the game, predictions for upcoming matches, and fascinating facts and figures -- exactly the palette of information one would expect for a major election.

Begeisterte Fussballfans im Münchner Hauptbahnhof

German soccer fans show their team support around the clock.

The argument that the election results won't start coming in until after 10:00 p.m. local time in Germany on Sunday holds little sway, considering the fact that the games don't start until 6:00 and 8:45 p.m., and yet television coverage of the championship already begins in the late afternoon.

Sporting weekend keeps people at home

Soccer is not the only sport to keep Germans at home and glued to the TV on Sunday. With a long day of live sporting events -- from Formula One motor racing to ATP tennis -- the chances of mobilizing an already apathetic electorate are slim.

Even German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder expressed doubt that more than the expected 42 percent of voters would go to the polls. "Naturally I'm hoping for a high election turnout, however I am rather skeptical," he said as he voted with his wife in Hanover early Sunday.

If Germany were playing the Netherlands on Sunday instead of Tuesday, voter turnout would be understandably even lower. In France, where fans are eagerly awaiting the clash with England, only about 13 percent of the population went to the polls by mid-day, and turnout is expected to decline as the day progresses with just one-third of the country casting a ballot.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country sent him a strong warning in voting on Thursday, summed up the sentiment on the continent best when he told reporters he would be keeping his political calendar free on Sunday evening so he could watch the face-off between the defending champions France and England.

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