Eurosceptic mavericks and fundamentalists thrive as Czechs and Poles stay at home

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The Independent Online

One is a former pig farmer, the other a well-educated lawyer. Together the leaders of Poland's two biggest populist and Eurosceptic parties have helped deliver one of the biggest electoral setbacks ever suffered by EU leaders.

One is a former pig farmer, the other a well-educated lawyer. Together the leaders of Poland's two biggest populist and Eurosceptic parties have helped deliver one of the biggest electoral setbacks ever suffered by EU leaders.

Across the Union's 10 new member states, apathy was the over-riding factor in the European elections, and voters in Poland and the Czech Republic gave a big boost to the Eurosceptics.

By far the largest of the 10 countries that joined the EU in May, Poland is also the most assertive and Eurosceptical. It therefore proved fertile ground for the ultra-conservative Liga Polskich Rodzin or League of Polish Families, and for the populist Samoobrona or Self Defence Party which will send 10 and seven MEPs to Brussels respectively.

Of the two, the Self Defence Party, led by the suntanned maverick Andrez Lepper, is better known abroad - though its showing in the European elections did not live up to its advance billing. Mr Lepper styles himself as the defender of the ordinary Pole, particularly its millions of farmers. He once led peasants in a raid on a poultry producer, distributing the sausages in the refrigerators to the local poor.

Nor is he the only publicity-hungry figure in his party. His right-hand woman Renata Beger gave one tabloid interview in which she compared her love of sex for horses' love of oats.

However, it was Roman Giertych, leader of the League of Polish Families, who triumphed at the polls. With 16.4 per cent of the vote, and backed by the ultra-Catholic broadcaster Radio Mariya, the former lawyer has a new platform to pursue his right-wing, anti-abortion and nationalist, Eurosceptic agenda.

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, the vote proved a triumph for the Eurosceptic party of Vaclav Klaus, who described his country's membership of the EU as a marriage of convenience, rather than love. His Eurosceptic stance has been given a platform by the popular, American-owned Nova TV.

Why have the EU's newest nations thrown such maverick figures into the limelight just one month after joining the EU? The answer lies partly in the dismal turnout, which saw just one in five voters bothering to cast a ballot in Poland, less than one in three in the Czech Republic and only 28.7 per cent across the 10 new nations.

As Elmar Brok, the senior German Christian Democrat put it: "If you have a low turnout, the fundamentalists and the sceptics have an advantage because their supporters are hardliners who will turn out to vote."

Mr Giertych, who campaigned against EU membership in last year's referendum, has argued that his warning that joining the bloc would result in price rises has come true.

The government in Warsaw, like the centre-left administration in Prague, is deeply unpopular. Meanwhile there was a strong sense of voter fatigue. As one diplomat put it: "We concentrated on the accession negotiations, and then the referendum and a lot of people now feel they have taken the important decisions on the European Union."

In addition, the current political crisis in Warsaw, where the acting prime minister Marek Belka has failed to win parliamentary approval, distracted attention from the European poll.

And more broadly across the 10 new countries, many mainstream parties are regarded with acute cynicism, partly because politicians lined their own pockets during the transition to a market economy, as state assets were privatised.

But some observers argue that the new 10 nations are not so different from the old ones. Britain's Minister for Europe, Denis MacShane, said: "In many countries there is a strong anti-EU feeling, reflected in sovereigntist or anti-EU parties, often with a sulphurous mixture of xenophobia. And often - in France, Belgium or the UK - they can end up winning a large chunk of the vote."

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