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Conservatives boosted in European elections

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent

BERLIN, June 8 (UPI) -- The European Parliament is becoming more conservative after the biggest elections in European history.

Voters across 27 EU countries handed center-right parties 263 seats, the most in the 736-member Parliament. Center-left parties won 161 seats, the Liberals/Democrats 80 seats and the Greens 52 seats, with the remainder going to smaller parties.

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Center-left groupings had campaigned against turbo-capitalism and cutbacks of the social welfare state in times of a global economic crisis with high unemployment -- generally considered to be socialist-friendly. But center-left parties still lost ground.

"The European Socialist movement has lost its main flagship -- a social Europe," Jan Techau, Europe expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, or DGAP, a Berlin-based think tank, told United Press International in a telephone interview Monday.

However, the voter shifts won't significantly change day-to-day work in the Parliament, Techau added.

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"Center-right and center-left parties still form the central axis of the Parliament."

All major parties suffered because of a record-low turnout. Only 43.5 percent of the 375 million Europeans eligible to vote went to the ballot boxes. Experts say this is due to the parties' failure to motivate their supporters and a generally low profile of the European Parliament among the public. People here don't have the feeling they can influence Europe by voting on its parliamentarians, Techau said.

"A large majority of Europeans say Europe is a good thing, but they are unhappy with the level of participation," he said.

Those who did show up in elections held Thursday through Sunday favored conservative parties.

Voters handed Britain's Labor Party its worst election results in a century, and in Spain, the ruling Socialist Party was trumped by a center-right group, further increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as he battles Europe's highest unemployment with waning support from the Parliament.

In Germany, the ruling Social Democrats, or SPD, lost catastrophically to their coalition partner, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Conservatives. Observers say this should give Merkel a boost ahead of this September's national elections, in which she faces off against SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

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The notable exceptions were Greece, where voters punished the ruling conservative party for a series of corruption scandals and a rapidly deteriorating economy, and Latvia, where voters turned to ethnic Russian center-left parties, hoping they can stop the country's economic downward spiral.

In the EU's new members across Central and Eastern Europe, "there is a notable shift toward conservativism," Marie-Lena May, Eastern Europe expert at the DGAP, told UPI Monday.

In Bulgaria, the governing Socialists lost to the country's biggest center-right opposition party ahead of national elections later this year; the same happened in the Czech Republic.

In Poland, voters back the country's center-right forces, and in Hungary, results reflected the political instability: The governing Socialist Party won four seats, and the main center-right opposition party, Fidesz, 14.

In Hungary, the financial crisis has caused a political shift to the right, May said, adding that the development there should be closely watched.

"Hungary is the region's most unstable country and could even see mass demonstrations," she told UPI.

May said several parties across the region had campaigned with populist, anti-EU messages to attract protest voters. An effective strategy, it turned out, as many of the moderate voters could not be convinced to cast their ballots.

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Only one in four Polish headed to the polls, with the region's best turnout in Bulgaria, at 38 percent -- a figure still considerably lower than the EU-wide average of 43 percent.

In Hungary, for example, the far-right Jobbik Party won three seats.

But populism scored points in Western Europe as well.

In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam group led by populist Geert Wilders won 15 percent of the vote to snatch the country's second-strongest result; the Austrian far-right Freedom Party doubled its vote to 13 percent compared with the previous election in 2004, and in Denmark, the anti-immigrant Danish People's Party also won considerably.

In Italy, a party within Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition known for its anti-immigration policies made gains with 10 percent of the vote. Berlusconi's conservative Freedom Party lost a bit but still came out on top of the country, despite criticism for Berlusconi's economic recovery course and a series of scandals involving young women.

Voters not only slapped the British Labor Party by handing it just 15.7 percent of the vote, which was far behind the Conservatives. They even favored the U.K. Independence Party, whose sole purpose is to eject Britain from the EU, and, for the first time ever, heaved into the European Parliament the far-right British National Party -- a disastrous week for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

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"The situation in Britain is the real test for Europe," Techau told UPI.

If Gordon Brown succumbs to ever-louder calls for his resignation, then David Cameron, from the Conservatives, will likely take the helm of government. If Cameron follows through with his pledge to unlace the Lisbon Treaty, then this could endanger the treaty in Poland and the Czech Republic, Techau said.

"Right now, everything is possible, even the failure of Lisbon," he said.

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