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Elections

Europe at the polls - but who will actually vote?

On Thursday, the European elections start - in the Netherlands and Great Britain. Voting in the other EU member states is to follow and the final result will be announced Sunday night. But not many people care anymore.

The European Parliament holds a number of records. With 751 members in the upcoming session, it's the largest, freely elected parliament in the world. It's also the only democratically elected multinational parliament, and it represents the European Union's 504 million citizens. India, which recently voted in a new parliament, has a population of more than double that, but its parliament is smaller, with only 543 representatives.

The EU Parliament today has just as much power as the European Council, which consists of the executives of the 28 member states. Even though the parliament has a significant power, interest in the EU election is modest at best. Voter turnout continues to decrease. The last election in 2009 was a new low, with only 43 percent of European voters showing up at the polls.

Personalization as a way to lure more voters

"So far, EU elections have been rather boring," Martin Schulz, top candidate for the Socialists, told DW. "This time, we're trying to do it differently." The large parties all have top candidates who are explicitly running for the office of president of the European Commission - the influential head of the administration in Brussels. The EU Commission is basically the government of the European Union. It is responsible for upholding EU treaties and it can propose legislation.

The election campaign for commission president hasn't really taken off though, if academic analyses are to be believed. They have found that the duels between the top candidates have mostly been covered by the media in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium.

Martin Schulz and his Conservative competitor Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, have a hard time attracting attention. And the candidates from the left and right fringes aren't even really campaigning on a European level, since they reject the EU in its current form anyway.

Nationalists, Euroskeptics and xenophobes gaining ground

Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders 
(Foto: Valerie Kuypers/EPA)

The nationalists parties could triumph in several countries

At times of high unemployment and harsh austerity policies in many countries, election researchers anticipate massive amounts of protest votes. Right-wing nationalists or leftist populists could triumph in France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy and Greece. Roughly one-fifth of the seats in the parliament could go to extremist politicians.

"Of course we have to listen to what's said in these election campaigns and what the results of these elections are, but we have to carry on," the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said. "And we will have a sufficient majority of people who are in favor of the European project - with nuances, but basically in favor of it."

The EU Parliament will be much more polarized than it has been before, election researcher Doru Frantescu from the Brussels organization Poll Watch 2014 believes. He said that cooperation between the largest two groups in parliament could be very convenient: "In areas that require strengthening of EU institutions or strengthening the EU budget, the Socialists and the Conservatives will have to come together and form a grand coalition, just like in the German parliament, to pass legislation with the help of the Liberals."

Prognoses say that not much is going to change in the balance of power in parliament, even though far more than 100 parties from 28 countries will be represented in the democratic anthill.

Who is going to be president of the EU Commission?

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz
(Foto: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz compete for the EU Commission presidency

After the election the parliament has to agree on a commission president together with the member states' heads of government in the European Council. It remains to be seen whether the European Council will in fact suggest Martin Schulz or Jean-Claude Juncker and follow the parliamentarians' vote. This would likely only happen if one is backed by a significant majority, Van Rompuy said. "Hopefully, we can avoid a clash of institutions," he added. "I will do my utmost to find a solution during summer."

The two top candidates hardly differ in their positions. Both are in favor of an improved immigration policy, both reject Turkey as an EU member and both want to reach a free-trade agreement with the US. Parliamentary President Martin Schulz jokingly complained that his opponent Jean-Claude Juncker would simply take over Socialist positions and imitate him: "If I promised tomorrow that there'll be eternal sunshine in the EU, Juncker would say: So do I!"

Luxembourg's former prime minister sees himself in the lead due to his greater experience and teh fact that there is a small Conservative majority in the parliament. But under no circumstances would Juncker accept support from the far right. "The right-wing extremists reject everything that could advance society," he said to DW. "If I only became president of the commission with the votes of the far right, I wouldn't accept the mandate. I don't want to owe my office to the populists, the half-fascists, the xenophobes and those who reject everyone different from themselves."

Four days of voting

Five People stand in behind their speaker's desks and infront of a blue wall with yeallow stars
(Foto: Bernd Riegert/DW)

There was only one public debate with all candidates

Since the EU member states couldn't agree on one set of rules or even one date for the election, the vote is taing place from Thursday to Sunday. Officially, first results will only be announced at 11 p.m. CET on Sunday. But many states don't follow this rule. In Germany, for example, polling stations close at 6 p.m. on Sunday and the first forecasts are expected on TV shortly after that. By the time the distribution of all 751 seats in parliament is figured out, it could well be early Monday morning.

The first meeting of the new parliament will be on July 1. Until then, all members have to sort themselves into one of the seven or eight parliamentary groups. Since Germany has done away with a minimum percentage of votes this time, the country will possibly send representatives of numerous small parties, among them the right-wing extremist NPD. One party that will definitely make it into parliament is the euroskeptic "Alternative for Germany" (AfD). In pre-election polls, the AfD has garnered around seven percent of the vote - which puts it ahead of the liberal former government party FDP by a wide margin.

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