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EU elections put focus on eastern Europe

Voters from three Eastern European nations and Malta go to the polls on Saturday in European Parliament elections expected to boost eurosceptic parties despite a surprise setback for Dutch populists.

BRUSSELS: Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, who all joined the European Union in 2004, voted on Saturday in European Parliament elections shaping up as a test between eurosceptic parties and the rest.

After the Czech Republic and Ireland on Friday, and Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday, Saturday's polls set the stage for the rest of the 28 EU states to vote on Sunday for a parliament equipped with new powers and a key say in who gets to head the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

Nearly 400 million people can vote but turnout is expected to plumb record lows, having fallen from 62 percent in 1979 to just 43 percent in 2009 -- when Slovakia came bottom of the class with less than 20 percent.

Such low numbers have analysts talking of an EU "democratic deficit", reflecting voter hostility to a bloated bureaucracy in Brussels identified with the harsh austerity policies adopted to stabilise strained public finances.

With an economy growing slowly, pro-EU politicians have to work hard to get their message across that member states will do better together than apart.

"Better together" however does get a better reception in eastern Europe, where former communist states run from Moscow keep a very wary eye on Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.

Finding safety in the EU and NATO since the end of the Cold War, countries such as Poland are firm believers in the European project -- a recent Pew Research Centre poll there showed 72 percent support for the bloc.

For Latvia and the other Baltic states Lithania and Estonia, a resurgent Russia under President Vladimir Putin is cause of a concern to which the eurosceptics have no answer.

"I remember what elections were during the Soviet era. That's why I make sure I vote in every democratic election I can," Latvian pensioner Liga Laizane told AFP early Saturday.

In Slovakia, another pensioner, Maria Hajkova, had a similar message.

"I always vote and I don't understand why so many young people ignore this election... I want the European politicians to preserve peace and prevent the war from spreading from Ukraine."

Others seemed less convinced.

Loaded down with fishing gear, Latvian Raimonds Graubins told AFP he was unlikely to cast his ballot.

"It depends on the fish. If my net is full of pike by lunchtime I may vote. If they are difficult, I'll probably be out all night!" he laughed.

Meanwhile in the Czech Republic, the CTK news agency said voter turnout on Friday had been just 10 percent, making it very likely the final tally will be below the 28 percent of 2009.

Opinion polls put the centre-right conservatives slightly ahead of the centre-left socialists but all eyes are on anti-EU parties who have won support from disillusioned voters hurt by a long economic slump and record unemployment.

Such groups could triple their presence to almost 100 in the 751-seat assembly, with Britain, France and Italy key states.

In local council elections on Thursday, 'man-in-the-street' Nigel Farage's UK Independence Party (UKIP) did well enough to have political pundits talking about a real change in Britain's political landscape.

"We are serious players," Farage said, promising to take the fight to the government ahead of general elections next year.

France's populist National Front could emerge as the country's single biggest party on Sunday with 23.5 percent of the vote, while Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement is also likely to do well in Italy.

However in sharp contrast to UKIP, Dutch eurosceptic and fiercely anti-Islamic populist Geert Wilders stumbled on Thursday, with his Party for Freedom slumping to just over 12 percent from 17 percent in 2009, according to exit polls.

An exit poll published on Saturday by Ireland's national broadcaster RTE showed Independent parties were set to take the largest slice of the vote with 27 percent. The two major parties -- Fine Gael and Fianna Fail -- both received 22 percent, according to the poll.

The first official results are expected shortly after 2100 GMT Sunday when polls in Italy close, setting the stage for what many consider to be the real contest -- whether it is Parliament or the EU's political leaders who get to decide next head of the European Commission.

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