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Voters leaning to the right in European Parliament election

EUROPE leaned to the right yesterday as tens of millions of people voted in European Parliament elections, with conservative parties leading or favored in many countries amid a global economic crisis.

Opinion surveys and exit polls showed right-leaning governments edging the opposition in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Conservative opposition parties were tied or ahead in Britain, Spain and some smaller countries.

Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and five other EU nations cast ballots in the past three days, while the rest of the 27-nation bloc voted yesterday. Results for most countries were expected early today.

The EU parliament has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws.

But the Europe-wide elections were most important as a snapshot of national political sentiment. High unemployment across Europe has increased voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties and made residents skeptical over the EU's power to help spur economic recovery.

Exit polls showed gains for far-right groups and other fringe parties amid predictions of record low turnout.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party has steadily held the lead in polls, with the Socialist Party second.

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People's Party held a two-digit lead over his main center-left rival in the most recent polling despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old model.

In Germany, the conservatives of German Chancellor Angela Merkel were headed for a center-right majority and her center-left rivals faced a crushing defeat, exit polls showed, less than four months before a national vote.

With most votes counted in Austria, the main rightist party gained strongly while the Social Democrats, the main party in the governing coalition, lost substantial ground.

But the big winner in Austria was the rightistFreedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13 percent of the vote.

In the Netherlands, exit polls predicted Geert Wilders' party would win more than 15 percent of the country's votes, bruising a ruling alliance of Conservatives and Socialists.

Fringe groups could use five-year terms in the EU parliament's 736 seats as a platform for their extreme views but were not expected to affect the assembly's increasingly influential lawmaking on issues ranging from climate change to cell-phone roaming charges.


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