EU voters batter governing parties

LONDON – European voters punished leaders in Britain, Italy and the Netherlands for getting involved in Iraq – but also turned their ire on the war’s chief opponents German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac over local issues, projections showed Sunday.

The 25-nation vote, which was spread out over four days, also revealed anxieties about an issue close to home: the newly expanded European Union itself.

Among the few that did well were Spain’s Socialists, who recently withdrew troops from Iraq after a backlash over a March 11 terrorist attack. The Socialists – surprise victors in elections days after the Madrid train bombings – won a new stamp of legitimacy by emerging on top in the European parliamentary vote as well.

The continent-wide democratic exercise, which ended with 19 countries voting on Sunday, came at a crucial time in the development of the European Union. The bloc has just added 10 members, largely from Eastern Europe and leaders hope to agree on a new constitution later this month.

Across Europe, the outcome highlighted anxieties about the expanding union, with anti-EU parties projected to do well in Britain, Sweden and even the Czech Republic and Poland, former communist nations participating in their first EU-wide vote.

Overall, center-right parties won, taking between 247 and 277 seats in the 732-member European Parliament, according to preliminary projections. The center-left group, which includes lawmakers from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party and Schroeder’s Social Democrats, finished second – with an expected 189 to 209 seats.

Blair’s Labor Party also came in third in local elections held simultaneously in England and Wales earlier this week. The results were widely perceived in Britain as a rebuke for Blair’s increasingly unpopular support for President Bush over Iraq.

Iraq also was an issue in The Netherlands, where the deployment of 1,400 troops was a key issue in Thursday’s vote. Preliminary results showed gains for leftist opposition parties.

The picture was rendered more complex by results in Germany and France, where leaders who opposed the war nevertheless took a beating over local issues.

Schroeder’s Social Democrats saw their share of the German vote fall to 21.4 percent compared to 30.7 percent five years ago, their worst performance since World War II, according to ARD television’s exit polls. In France, Chirac’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement, with about 16.5 percent of the vote, finished far behind the Socialist Party, which garnered 30 percent of ballots cast.

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