BRUSSELS/THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Exit polls showed a Dutch anti-immigration party made gains on Thursday on the first day of a European Parliament election that is expected to punish governments struggling to cope with the global economic crisis.
If the results are confirmed, they will alarm European Union officials who fear a low turnout across the 27-nation bloc could boost extremist parties and undermine confidence in the EU’s leaders, already under fire over their handling of the crisis.
The Netherlands and Britain were the first countries to vote in a four-day election in which 375 million people are eligible to cast ballots and the majority of states will vote on Sunday.
Polls issued by the ANP news agency and broadcaster NOS put the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in second place in the Netherlands, with more than 15 percent of votes and four of the 25 Dutch seats in parliament. It had none in the last assembly.
“This is fantastic, a great day for the people who crave another Netherlands, another Europe,” Wilders said. He had promised earlier on Thursday that Turkey would not join the union: “Not in 10 years, not in a million years.”
The main parties in the ruling center-right coalition lost seats but the Christian Democrats remained ahead of the Freedom Party with five seats, the exit polls showed.
Many Dutch are concerned about Muslim immigration, the growing influence of Brussels over Dutch laws and Dutch taxpayers’ contributions to the EU budget.
Dutch voters rejected a draft constitution for Europe four years ago.
“Dutch voters are not happy with the direction Europe is heading,” said Rob Boudewijn, a lecturer in European Affairs at Nijenrode University.
Opinion polls predict a low turnout across the EU, although the 736-member assembly has important powers to shape pan-European laws, and expect ruling parties such as Britain’s Labour Party to suffer defeats.
Despite Wilders’ success, an opinion poll showed the center-right European People’s Party was likely to remain the largest group in the parliament with 262 seats -- just over one third of places.
It put the European Socialist group in second place on 194 seats, or just over one quarter of seats.
The Predict09.eu survey suggested the assembly would be more fragmented than now, with smaller parties taking more seats, but it indicated this would not threaten mainstream parties as they work on major laws such as shaking up financial regulation.
The parliament is one of the three main EU institutions, with the executive Commission and the Council of EU leaders.
It passes and shapes many EU laws, is supposed to be a democratic watchdog over the other institutions and passes the EU budget. Its power will increase under planned reforms.
Many voters are alarmed by high unemployment -- 9.2 percent in the 16 countries sharing the euro currency -- and joint European efforts to tackle joblessness have had limited success. Some EU leaders fear rising poverty could trigger social crisis.
For British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who also faced local elections on Thursday, a bad performance by Labour would increase pressure on him to quit following a scandal over parliamentary perks and expenses.
German leaders will be watching the mood before a national election in September and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling conservatives could lose votes to the far right.
In Ireland, the governing Fianna Fail party is expected to suffer a setback but it is not clear how well the Libertas party which opposes the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty, which is intended to streamline decision-making, will fare.
Additional reporting by Reed Stevenson and Marine Hass; editing by Andrew Roche