Voters punish governments of Europe and bring in the mavericks

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The Independent Online

From Paris to Prague, Europe's governments suffered ritual humiliation at the polls last night, as protest votes were cast in their millions, mainly for with Eurosceptics and fringe parties.

From Paris to Prague, Europe's governments suffered ritual humiliation at the polls last night, as protest votes were cast in their millions, mainly for with Eurosceptics and fringe parties.

The world's largest transnational elections showed a snapshot of a continent whose voters are deeply disgruntled, with many turning to maverick candidates to show their discontent.

The party led by the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, suffered a stunning defeat provoked by discontent over the economy. The centre-right leadership in France also suffered a mauling.

Polls showed governments in Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy, facing a voter backlash over support for the US-led occupation of Iraq.

Although few nations were expecting a rise in Euroscepticism on the scale of the United Kingdom, Poland was anticipating a surge of support for the party led by Andrzej Lepper, the populist former pig farmer who has campaigned against the European Union.

A new Eurosceptical grouping seized about 15 per cent of the vote in Sweden although their Danish counterparts were disappointed with their results.

Some 14,670 candidates contested a total of 732 seats in the European parliament, which has accrued powers to legislate jointly with EU ministers over a large array of areas.

Iraq was a factor in yesterday's elections but general dissatisfaction with sitting governments was a greater one. Politicians who suffered a battering because of protest votes were not restricted to those that had aligned with the President George Bush.

The party of Mr Schröder, one of Mr Bush's fiercest critics over the war, suffered defeat as voters punished his social democratic party for the poor state of the economy and unpopular social security reforms. At 21.6 per cent, Mr Schröder's party's share of the vote slumped to less than half of that of his Christian Democrat rivals, who collected 45.3 per cent.

In France, where the government also opposed the war in Iraq, the voters deserted the party in their droves. The conservative party of President Jacques Chirac, the Union for a Popular Movement, won about 16.5 per cent of the vote, finishing a far second behind the Socialist Party, which scored 30 per cent of ballots cast, according to exit polls.

In the Czech Republic, one of 10 countries that joined the EU on 1 May, the Social Democratic Party led by the Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla plunged to third place, with 10.5 per cent, according to a Czech public television exit poll.

The Civic Democratic Party won 31 per cent and the Communist Party 17 per cent, the poll said. That marked a victory for the party of the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, who has described his country's membership of the EU as a marriage of convenience and campaigned against handing more power to Brussels.

The new parliament is destined to include a large number of mavericks, including a rebel Austrian MEP and former investigative journalist who uncovered abuses of the EU's generous perks system. Hans-Peter Martin was the main winner in Austria, with exit polls showing his group gaining two seats and attracting 13.8 per cent of the vote on a "clean up Brussels" ticket.

The far-right Freedom Party, notorious for xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments and for the statements of its most famous politician, Jög Haider, lost four of their five seats in the European parliament, provisional results showed.

The largest opposition party, the left-leaning Social Democrats, gained 2.3 points to score 34 per cent, putting them one seat ahead of the People's Party of the Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, who leads the coalition government with the Freedom Party. The Socialists won seven seats and the People's Party will have six seats in the 18-strong Austrian delegation, according to the early results.

Although the centre-right leadership of Luxembourg prospered, countries where the government escaped censure tended to be those with relatively new administrations. In Greece the conservative party of the Prime Minister, Costas Caramanlis, scored its second consecutive victory against the opposition Socialists in three months, the exit polls showed.

The New Democracy party received an estimated 42.5 per cent compared to 35 per cent for George Papandreou's socialist party, according to polls on Greece's private Mega channel. Mr Caramanlis' party won national elections on 7 March and ended 11 years of Socialist government.

The Spanish socialist government, which came to power in the wake of the bombing in Madrid on 11 March, was also expecting to poll well against its centre-right opponents. The Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is enjoying a political honeymoon following the return of Spanish troops from Iraq.

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