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EU elections put focus on eastern Europe

Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, which all joined the European Union in 2004, voted in European Parliament elections that are likely to see anti-EU parties surge in several key member states.

BRUSSELS: Latvia, Malta and Slovakia, which all joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, voted on Saturday in European Parliament elections that are likely to see anti-EU parties surge in several key member states.

But in the Czech Republic, three pro-European parties took the lead with a right-wing group narrowly ahead, according to exit polls quoted by the daily Dnes, although turnout was at a record low.

Exit polls in Latvia also showed a solid result for pro-Europeans, bolstered by the crisis in Ukraine and fears in Europe's east of a resurgent Russia.

Voting in the mammoth election gathering almost 400 million eligible voters began in Britain and the Netherlands on Thursday, joined 24 hours later by the Czech Republic and Ireland.

The remaining 21 EU states vote on Sunday for a parliament which has gained increasing powers and a key say in who gets to head the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

Many Europeans however routinely choose not to vote. Turnout has fallen steadily from 62 per cent in 1979 to just 43 per cent in 2009, when Slovakia came bottom of the class with less than 20 per cent.

In the Czech Republic, exit polls show abstention hitting a new record 80 per cent compared with 72 per cent at the last 2009 vote.

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 the economy growing only very 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 once controlled by Moscow keep a very wary eye on Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis.

"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.

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 per cent support for the bloc.

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

According to an exit poll for national broadcaster LTV, Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma's Unity party came first with 31 per cent of the vote, with the pro-Russian Harmony Centre a distant second with 13 per cent.

Speaking on LTV, former Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said: "Voters opted for a centrist, stable, pragmatic party that wants to be in Europe".

Analysts have said that despite the expected gains by the anti-EU camp in the new parliament, the vote should still leave the broad centre-right and centre-left parties in control with about 70 per cent of the seats.

They may "differ on many policy aspects but they will work together with each other and member states when necessary," said Christian Schulz of Germany's Berenberg Bank.

For Schulz, the real problem is for national governments, which may feel they have to take on board some of the anti-EU complaints to win over voters hurt by a long economic slump and record unemployment.

Recent opinion polls suggest the Eurosceptic parties could triple their presence to almost 100 seats in the 751-seat assembly, with Britain, France and Italy key states.

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

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

Britain's finance minister George Osborne said he "respects" the vote for Farage and his party.

"We take very seriously the fact that people have voted UKIP. We respect that fact. We have to listen to people who voted UKIP. We have to listen to their anger and their anxiety," he told BBC radio.

France's populist National Front could emerge as the country's single biggest party Sunday with 23.5 per cent of the vote while Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement is running strongly in Italy.

An exit poll by Ireland's national broadcaster RTE showed independents with 27 per cent of the vote, beating both mainstream parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

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