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Voters in the Netherlands and Britain on Thursday kick-started the European election, which is expected to produce a surge in support for populist parties and pose a serious challenge to mainstream politicians in the European parliament.
In the biggest exercise in democracy outside India, up to 350m are eligible to vote over the next four days in 28 countries. The results will be announced on Sunday evening once all the polls are closed.
Europe’s centre-right parties are forecast to emerge as the largest group, followed by the moderate left and liberal, according to the latest polls.
The rise of anti-EU forces and expectations of a record low turnout are likely to highlight the growing disaffection in a region still emerging from a recession brought on by a financial crisis that pushed Greece, Ireland and Portugal to the verge of bankruptcy and left most of the bloc with low growth and high unemployment.
Eurosceptic and populist groups, including Britain’s Ukip, France’s National Front, the Netherlands’ Freedom party (PVV), Danish People’s party and the Jobbik party in Hungary are expected to increase their vote from the 2009 total.
Italy’s Five Star Movement, formed by comedian Beppe Grillo, and Greece’s Syriza on the left are also expected to do well.
But mainstream parties are still likely to represent the majority of the parliament with the European People’s party, a grouping of centre-right parties, set to win 218 seats with the Socialists trailing behind with 201 seats. Liberals and Greens are set to win 70 and 42 seats, respectively, giving pro-EU groups a total 561 seats, down from 610 in 2009.
The gains of the populists should be sufficient for Marine Le Pen, FN leader, and Geert Wilders, head of the PVV, to form an anti-EU group with other nationalist parties. That would give them extra funds and speaking rights to take forward their mission to destroy the “Brussels monster”.
However, the rise of the fringe groups will also have a significant impact on the national stage, particularly in the UK and France, where Nigel Farage’s Ukip and the FN are expected to emerge as the largest parties.
Ukip is forecast to be the big winner in the UK, seizing 30 per cent of the popular vote and securing 24 seats, 11 more than in 2009. Labour is expected to increase its number of MEPs from 13 to 22 seats, while the ruling Conservatives are poised to lose nine MEPs, giving them only 16 seats. The Liberal Democrats are preparing for a near-complete wipeout as they are expected to win only two seats, down from 11.
In France, Ms Le Pen’s far-right party with 23 seats is expected to come ahead of the centre-right UMP and the ruling Socialists, which are forecast to win 20 and 14 seats, respectively.
Ms Le Pen’s poll lead led to a late intervention in the election campaign by Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president and UMP leader. Mr Sarkozy broke a two-year silence on political issues in an article in Le Point magazine, in which he issued a ringing defence of the need for the union to preserve peace in Europe and beyond.
The final election result could for the first time also determine who will become the next president of the European Commission.
Traditionally, the head of the EU’s powerful executive arm has been appointed by EU leaders. However, following the 2009 Lisbon treaty, national governments must take into account the EU election results and then hold appropriate consultations among themselves before selecting the president.
The two lead contenders are Jean-Claude Juncker, the conservative former prime minister of Luxembourg, for the EPP and Martin Schulz, the German head of the European parliament, for the Socialists.
If PollWatch 2014 forecasts are correct then Mr Juncker, as leader of the EPP, would have the right to be considered for the top Commission job. PollWatch provides regular predictions of the election outcome.
However, there is suspicion in Brussels that EU leaders, who are scheduled to meet at a summit in the Brussels on Tuesday, might ignore the parliamentary candidate and select their own name for the commission presidency.
Those thought to be considered candidates include Enda Kenny, Ireland’s prime minister, for the EPP and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Danish prime minister, for the Socialists.