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European Parliament elections: Voters deny traditional centrists a majority, boost euroskeptics and Greens

A woman holds her ballot at a polling station for the European elections in Baleni, Romania. The country’s ruling Social Democratic Party suffered a major blow in the European Parliament elections, according to the country's only exit poll. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

BRUSSELS — Europeans dealt a blow to the continent’s traditional center-left and center-right politicians in elections for the European Parliament on Sunday, depriving them of a majority for the first time in favor of a fractured slate of pro-E.U. lawmakers, with small gains for the far-right.

Voters turned out in droves — the highest participation in 25 years — for the opportunity to take a shot at the parties that have steered Europe’s consensus-driven policies for decades.

Far-right leaders were on track for their best Europe-wide result ever, but it was only an incremental gain over their result from 2014, suggesting that despite years of tumult, voters might not be ready to give up on the European Union, or to embrace leaders who want to weaken it from within. Voters boosted Greens and other pro-European Union leftists, showing that voters who abandoned traditional parties were searching for new blood, but not a full-scale political revolution.

The vote followed a tumultuous period for the 28-nation, border-erasing European Union. In the five years since the last elections for European Parliament, the continent has been rocked by repeated terrorist attacks, a refugee crisis, Britain’s decision to leave the bloc and the lingering pain of the global financial crisis.

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen bested President Emmanuel Macron’s party in a repeat of her 2014 win.

She delighted in what she called “the erasure of the old parties” and said the vote “confirms the new divide between nationalism and globalization.”

But her 23.5 percent vote share was lower than it was in 2014, a warning sign that she might have hit a ceiling despite months of national protests against Macron and his pro-business policies.

With more than 400 million eligible voters, the European Parliament elections are the second-largest exercise in democracy in the world, behind India’s national elections. After decades of slipping participation, turnout this year was sharply higher — about 51 percent, up from 42.6 in 2014. The spike indicated new passions — and new anxieties.

The mixed results echoed across Europe, where a rollicking brigade of far-right campaigners built momentum in opinion polls but delivered only modest results. In the Netherlands, one far-right party supplanted another, with no overall gain. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won a smaller share than it did in national elections in 2017.

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Across the continent, euroskeptic forces captured about 24 percent of the legislature’s 751 seats, initial results indicated, up only slightly from 2014, when they captured 22 percent.

The biggest wellspring of far-right support appeared to be Italy, where Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party vaulted into first place after a year in which he campaigned across the country on a fierce platform of turning back migrants and weakening the European Union.

But his plans for a European-wide raid of fellow euroskeptics will now have to be scaled back. Most of his potential partners made small gains, if any. They were never expected to take a majority of the parliament; now it’s unlikely they’ll be strong enough to be a blocking minority.

Instead, Greens and other pro-environment, socially liberal parties might have been the surprise of the election, surging to second or third place in France, Germany, Finland and elsewhere. 

The result is a European Parliament in which the centrist parties failed to reach a majority for the first time, and will have to draw support from lawmakers with less orthodox views of how to run Europe. The centrists dropped from 53 percent of the parliament, to 43. 

In Germany, where the Greens surged to second place, according to initial results, party co-leader Robert Habeck told broadcaster ARD that concern for the planet’s future had “played a dominant role” in the campaign, and that voters were punishing the government for its “hesitancy” in confronting the issue.

The legislature has a voice in some of the biggest issues facing the European Union. It approves senior E.U. officials, signs off on Europe’s massive budget and delves into gritty lawmaking, as in the sweeping data privacy rules that went into effect last year and whose reach extends far beyond European borders.

In Italy, the Western European country that has most clearly thrown its support behind populism and the far right, the projected results confirmed the rise of Salvini’s League.

Projections suggested that the League had earned 34 percent of the Italian vote, doubling its showing in national elections last year.

Those results, well ahead of other far-right parties in a Pan-European coalition, figure to bolster Salvini’s role as a nationalist torchbearer inside the bloc.

After polls closed, Salvini posted a photo of himself on Twitter — standing in front of a bookshelf with a “Make America Great Again” ball cap — in which he held a sign saying, “No. 1 Party in Italy. Thank you.”

The outcome shows how the League has surged ahead of its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, which entered the government last year as the most popular party but has since seen its support plunge.

Projections indicated that the antiestablishment Five Stars had slumped to a third-place finish behind the revamped center-left Democratic Party. Analysts suggested that Salvini might use the victory to reshuffle the government in his favor, pulling it further to the right — or even drop out of the coalition and use new elections as a bid to become prime minister. But Salvini indicated early Monday that he would return to work “serenely,” without “internal showdowns.”

In France, the vote was seen as a referendum on the leadership of Macron, who came to power in 2017 with an avowedly pro-European agenda.

But Macron’s popularity has plummeted since his election, notably in the ongoing “yellow vest” protest that portrays the young president as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

But the results were not the crushing defeat for Macron some had predicted. He finished a single percentage point behind Le Pen. Le Pen fared worse than she has in previous elections, and Macron’s result confirmed that his centrist party had definitively supplanted the traditional party structure of center left and center right.

In Germany, the electorate split among smaller parties, with the two governing parties that have traditionally dominated the country’s politics appearing to continue their downward slide.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats were comfortably ahead in forecasts released by broadcasters after polls closed. But the party appeared to have fallen around seven percentage points from the last vote, in 2014.

Losses were far heavier for Merkel’s long-suffering coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, who appeared to have fallen to third place, increasing pressure on leaders to ditch the unloved coalition.

The vote appeared to have been a disappointment for Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party. Initial results showed it taking just over 10 percent of the vote — well ahead of its performance in the 2014 European election, but below the nearly 13 percent the party captured in the last national election, in 2017.

In the E.U.’s other German-speaking nation, Austria, early forecasts showed the country’s main far-right party losing ground in the aftermath of a scandal that brought the government crashing down last weekend.

The Freedom Party was in a distant third place, well below what polls had suggested the party would win before the controversy broke.

And in Britain, which voted despite plans to leave the bloc in October, Euroskeptic leader Nigel Farage was poised to repeat his 2014 poll-topping performance in the hard-fought campaign. The results add to the woes of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives, which just forced her to resign as party leader.

The election also unsettled national politics elsewhere. In Greece, left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called for snap elections after results showed him bleeding support to a center-right rival.

Witte reported from Berlin, Harlan reported from Rome and McAuley reported from Paris. Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

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