Dutch Eurosceptic Geert Wilders had predicted a political “earthquake” in the European Union’s marathon parliamentary election that kicked off on Thursday, but at least in the Netherlands the tremors weren’t nearly as strong as polls had forecast.
A Dutch exit poll indicated that Wilders’ anti-Islam Freedom Party, which plans to forge an alliance with France’s far-right National Front, had fallen well short of its goal of topping the poll and had finished in fourth place, behind three pro-European parties.
After two months of campaigning that opinion polls suggest has largely failed to inspire the electorate, some 388 million Europeans are entitled to vote in 28 countries, choosing 751 deputies to represent them in the European Parliament. Voting started Thursday in the Netherlands and Britain, and will finish on Sunday.
From Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, support has never been shakier for allowing the European Union and its institutions a major say over people’s lives. Founded in the aftermath of World War II with the goal of fostering prosperity and peace, the EU is now blamed by many for tough economic times, bureaucratic overreach and doing the bidding of the rich and powerful.
With Europe struggling to recover from economic crisis, including record high unemployment and negligible growth, the election is expected to produce a surge in support for Eurosceptics on both the far-right and hard left.
In Britain, final opinion polls showed the UK Independence Party, which wants to withdraw from the EU and impose tighter immigration controls, topping the poll and pushing the governing Conservatives into third place behind Labour.
If confirmed, that could raise pressure on Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who has promised an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 if he is re-elected next year, to take a tougher line on reducing the EU’s powers.
In the Netherlands, an IPSOS exit poll on public television suggested Wilders’ Freedom Party would finish fourth with 12.2%, behind three pro-EU parties: the centre-right Christian Democrats, the centrist Democrats 66 and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals.
Both the Netherlands and Britain will report their results once voting has finished in all EU member states on Sunday. Consolidated results, including the allotment of seats in the Parliament, will be announced at around 2100 GMT on Sunday.