Friday, June 5, 2009

Dutch, British get chance to vent anger in EU polls

Updated at: 0736 PST, Friday, June 05, 2009

THE HAGUE: A right-wing lawmaker called on Dutch voters worried about immigration to pick his party Thursday in European Parliament elections expected to bring successes for fringe and extremist groups.

Geert Wilders, creator of a short film that criticizes the Quran as a "fascist book," urged voters to reject EU involvement in immigration policy and said Turkey should not join the 27-nation bloc.

"Turkey as (an) Islamic country should never be in the EU, not in 10 years, not in a million years," Wilders said.

Voting was underway in Britain as well, where the far-right British National Party, which bars nonwhite members, was slated to win its first seat. The anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party was also expected to benefit from voter anger at the economic crisis and recent revelations that lawmakers sought public reimbursement for items ranging from horse manure to swimming-pool repairs.

About 375 million voters across the 27-nation European Union are voting Thursday through Sunday, appointing candidates to 736 seats on the assembly in the second-largest election in the world after India's.

Wilders has won support from Protestant and Catholic voters disenchanted with what's perceived as the growing influence of the nation's 800,000 Muslims, many of them immigrants from Morocco and Turkey.

Voting at City Hall in The Hague, Wilders said the Netherlands should not cede control over immigration to Brussels. Once ratified by all member states, the EU's reform treaty, known as the Treaty of Lisbon, will abolish EU states' right to veto European legislation on immigration matters.

"We want to decide who will enter Holland, not bureaucrats in Brussels," Wilders said.

Polls show the Freedom Party has the same level of support as the Christian Democrats and Labor. All three parties are projected to claim about 14 percent of the Dutch vote.

But Dutch IT manager Olivier van der Post, 40, rejected Wilders' vision.

"I didn't vote for Wilders ... History has shown that if you want prosperity you must open your borders, not close them," he said after voting in Voorburg, a leafy village on the outskirts of The Hague.

Matters directly controlled by the European Parliament were taking a back seat to national politics in many countries, where the economic downturn, cynicism over the union's eastward expansion and worries about relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were expected to fuel a voter backlash against mainstream politicians.

Record low turnout was also expected.

In Britain, few people arrived to cast early votes at polling stations in London. The country was also holding elections for about 2,300 of the country's 18,000 seats on local councils in towns and cities.

The 736-seat European Parliament has evolved over the past 50 years from a consultative legislature to one with the right to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws including on immigration, the environment, transport, consumer protection and trade.

The parliament can amend the EU budget — euro120 billion ($170 billion) this year — and has a role in appointing the European Commission, the EU administration, and the board of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

But polls continent-wide consistently show that voters consider their MEPs to be overpaid, remote and irrelevant in their daily lives. Such voter disinterest typically fuels low turnouts and stronger-than-usual showings for protest candidates from the hard left and right of the political spectrum.

Results from the European Parliament elections will be announced starting Sunday.

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