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Election kick-off

June 4, 2009

Four days of European elections have kicked off in Britain and the Netherlands amid concerns that a record low turnout and protest votes could boost extremist parties.

European Union flag
Over four days of voting, Europeans are to elect a new parliamentImage: AP

Voters in Britain and the Netherlands are heading to the polls on Thursday to kick off elections for the European Parliament. In four days of voting, about 375 million people will eligible to cast their ballots across the 27 member states in what will be the world's second-largest election after India's.

National versus European issues

There are concerns however in Brussels over voters tending to focus on the performances of their national governments rather than on European issues.

Prime Minster Jan Fischer of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, has urged European voters to take the poll seriously.

"One can not complain of the EU being undemocratic and at the same time refuse to go to the polls. I understand that people may feel tired of European issues but in these elections we are votng on European issues, not domestic ones."

British PM Gordon Brown
British voters are not expected to give their thumbs-up to BrownImage: AP

Many voters are nonetheless expected to look at their national governments first. In the case of Britain this is likely to mean that the ruling Labour Party will suffer a serious setback.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is struggling to assert his authority amid a scandal over MPs' expense claims and Labour is expected to bear the brunt of public outrage. Brown himself is under mounting pressure to step down. Several government ministers have already resigned over the issue.

Fring and extremist parties expected to gain

Opinion polls suggest that Labour could come in third even behind the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative Party is expected to win in Britain, but public outrage over the expenses scandal is also expected to boost the performance of fringe and extremist parties due to protest votes.

The anti-EU UK Independence Party is expected to do well and the far-right British National Party could win its first seat in the European Parliament.

In the Netherlands, the far right Freedom Party under Geert Wilders is also expected to increase its support.

EU Parliament building
Around 375 million voters are to decide who occupy the 736 seats in Strasbourg

There are 736 seats up for grabs and each of the 27 EU member states sends a different number of MEPs to the parliament in Strasbourg. Germany, with the biggest population, gets the most - 99 - while Malta will have just 5.

Each country is to hold its own elections for the parliament and near-complete results won't be known until late on Sunday when the last polling stations close.

Voter turnout has dropped steadily since the first European elections in 1979 and opinion polls suggest that this year will follow that trend with a new record low despite the increasing importance of EU legislation for the member states.

On Wednesday, the outgoing president of the European Parliament and German conservative MEP Hans-Gert Poettering, called on voters to acknowledge the importance of the Strasbourg legislature.

"Today approximately 75 percent of European Union legislation is decided by the European Parliament together with the council of ministers. It has a direct impact on our daily lives."

Editor: Chuck Penfold