The world's second-largest electorate went to the polls from the Arctic Circle to the Aegean Sea today to choose representatives to the European Parliament.
Based on preliminary returns and driven almost entirely by national rather than continental concerns, voters seemed poised to tilt the European legislature's working majority away from socialists -- who head most of Europe's national governments -- and toward center-right Christian Democrats. Official results will not be announced until Monday, but most projections gave the new center-right parliamentary bloc about 225 seats and the socialist bloc -- which had dominated the 626-member Parliament until now -- about 180.
With nearly 300 million people eligible to vote -- India has about twice as many on its election rolls -- turnout was the lowest in the Parliament's 20 years of limited but steadily growing power over the way the 15-nation European Union is run.
In national elections, Europeans usually vote in the 60 to 80 percent range; today, overall turnout appeared to be about 40 percent, ranging from about 25 percent in Portugal and Britain to 80 percent and higher in Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg, where voting is obligatory. Turnout in the last non-presidential U.S. election was 37 percent.
The elections are European in name and result, but they are really 15 distinct contests that turn on the fortunes of ruling and opposition parties in the nations of the European Union rather than on any pan-European debate.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's center-left governing coalition suffered large-scale reverses as voters punished the new leadership and gave the opposition Christian Democratic Union more than half of Germany's 99 seats in the European Parliament. British Labor Party candidates also suffered at the hands of opposition Conservatives, who appealed to the country's persistent Euroskepticism and aversion to a single European currency and appeared to be edging out Prime Minister Tony Blair's candidates.
But in France, the governing coalition of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin won a resounding victory, as did its coalition partners, the French Greens, headed by 1960s student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
Analysts ascribed the low turnout to Europeans' preoccupation with the NATO occupation of Kosovo, which also depleted media coverage of the more than 10,000 candidates running for Parliament seats. Membership is apportioned according to the size of national populations, which gives Germany the largest delegation in Brussels and Strasbourg, France, the two European cities between which the legislators shuttle for their sessions.
Among the young institutions of Europe's ongoing unification project, the European Parliament has operated largely on the margins. The real powers in the European Union are the member governments who sit atop the European Commission, the enormous regulatory bureaucracy that runs more and more of the life of Europe from this Belgian capital.
But a succession of EU treaties during the 1990s has enhanced the Parliament's actual powers, enabling it to move from mere advisory debating society to one of the checks and balances on the way Europe is managed. A complicated arrangement called a "co-decision" system gives the Parliament the right to amend legislation and confirm state-appointed European Commission members.
A few months before today's elections, the Parliament played a key role in the unseating of the once omnipotent commission. A scandal involving waste and fraud by senior national politicians who sit on the ruling EU body was about to result in a censure vote by the Parliament when the commission members resigned en masse -- a political first strike by the legislators that gave luster to their labors.
Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister who took over as Commission president a few weeks ago, had to pass muster through a parliamentary hearing and vote, and selection of other commission members will have to wait until the new Parliament assembles this fall.
The Parliament, first elected by universal suffrage in 1979, has become a familiar stable, mixing retired war horses and young stallions on the make. Brussels analyst Olivier Costa described parliamentary culture as "organized anarchy" but said that with the institution's maturity and growing power, a culture of professionalism and issue specialization is taking hold.
The Parliament still has a lot to answer for with the European public, who regularly remind its well-paid members how little they matter. In a recent poll cited by Costa, 69 percent of Britons, 62 percent of the French and 58 percent of Germans claimed never to have heard of the European Parliament. "Even with all its attributes, it's still just an accessory," Costa said.
European Parliament election campaigns usually attract attention because of big-name candidates -- including former national leaders. In Spain this year, former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez was trying to lead his party to a comeback in the European vote, while in Italy former conservative prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was attempting the same. Among celebrity candidates in Italy were film and stage director Franco Zeffirelli and actress Gina Lollobrigida.
Correspondent T. R. Reid in London contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Three priests line up at a polling station in a village in southeastern Spain, where voters were casting ballots for municipal and regional offices, as well as the European Parliament.