Under-fire PM Brown braces for EU vote blow

Gordon Brown is under pressure to quit as prime minister.
Beleaguered British Prime Minsiter Gordon Brown, under pressure to quit from members of his own party, was bracing himself for a potential new wave of troubles Sunday as counting began in European Elections.

Voting in the UK is expected to be dominated by dissatisfaction with Brown’s Labour government and its handling of the economic crisis and a recent scandal over politicians’ expenses. Brown’s authority suffered heavy blows last week as he was forced to reshuffle his Cabinet following the resignation of several key Cabinet ministers, some of whom urged him to step down. If Labour gets a poor showing in the European Parliament elections, it could fuel a plot by dissident Labour party members to secure enough support to try to force Brown’s exit. Labour’s crisis could benefit marginal parties, raising concerns that the far right anti-immigrant British National Party could win enough votes to send its first parliament member to Brussels. The Green Party and the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party have also been tipped to increase their share of the vote. There are fears that far-right parties will make big gains across Europe, with disenchanted voters looking to punish mainstream parties amid the global economic crisis. With about 375 million people eligible to vote, the European Union bills the elections as the world’s biggest exercise in transnational democracy. Some 736 seats are up for grabs. The Freedom Party of Dutch politician Geert Wilders appears to have done well in the Netherlands, according to exit polling released Thursday night. The polling was in apparent violation of European Union rules, which put a blackout on results until all countries finish voting. Brussels enlisted MTV, the cable television channel, to try to boost turnout after only 40 percent of voters under age 25 cast ballots in 2004. Turnout among all voters was 48 percent that year, the European Union said. Each country in the union sets its own voting timetable with most going to the polls Sunday. Voters from Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007, will participate for the first time. Counting is set to start Sunday night. The powers of the European Parliament — the European Union’s main legislative assembly — have increased significantly since it was established in 1979, with the parliament often shaping legislation, which is passed down to national parliaments for ratification at member state level. But there have been fears that this year’s contest could be hijacked by extremist parties taking advantage of low turnout across member states. A “Euro barometer” poll conducted last month found that only a third of potential voters intended to cast ballots. In a statement issued Thursday, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering urged citizens to use their vote to “support those parties that are in favor of European integration and that are committed to our European values.”

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“The elections to the European Parliament are of a greatest importance. They are a great occasion to re-launch the European Union and to address the issues that are important to citizens such as the economic crisis, unemployment, climate change, energy security, globalization or immigration,” Pottering said. In Germany, European elections are being treated as a rehearsal ahead of a general election later this year with Chancellor Angela Merkel struggling to hold together her coalition with the Social Democrats and the upwardly-mobile and anti-capitalist Left Party expected to capitalize on resentment with the two main parties. In France, the opposition Socialists are encouraging voters to treat the European election as a poll on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s record so far in the Elysee Palace. The European results will be seen as a test for the new Socialist leader Martine Aubry. But with the French tradition of street politics and the continuing appeal of radical traditions, there will be much interest in the performance of the far left New Anti-Capitalist Party led by Marxist postman Olivier Besancenot. In Italy, Premier Silvio Berlusconi has formed yet another new party coalition — People of Freedom — merging his party with the post-fascist Allianza Nationale of Gianfranco Fini. Immigration and the controversy over the treatment of its Roma (Gypsy) population is likely to figure in the campaign. A particularly tight contest seems likely in Poland where polls show the governing center-right (PO) party of Prime Minister Donald Tusk running level with the conservative Law and Justice. Only 17 percent of Poles say they are likely to vote.