Will apathy reign?

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BRUSSELS — Expectations of record-low turnout and the massive efforts to change that have been the dominant themes of media coverage ahead of the June 4 to June 7 European Parliament (EP) elections, far eclipsing discussion of policy or issues.

Conventional wisdom holds that extremist parties stand to benefit if a large proportion of the public stays home on polling days. A poll last week showed the number of likely voters on the rise — 49 percent now versus 34 percent from January to February polling. But the major political groups remain desperate — and unlikely — to hold onto every seat in the face of strong challenges from unconventional parties.

EP President Hans-Gert Pottering, a member of Germany’s Christian Democrats and the EP’s largest grouping, the European People’s Party, is among those who has been warning voters about what apathy may bring. “(I)f the people who are in favor of Europe will not vote or are not interested, then the extremes will be very strong, from the very left and from the very right,” Pottering told a large public gathering earlier this month. “I don't want that those who want to destroy the EU have an important role to play in the future of the EU.”

Pottering was not exaggerating. Though “euroscepticism” is not uncommon within the EP — the Independence and Democracy (IND/DEM) coalition claims 22 MEPs who are openly eurosceptic and some who are even secessionist — the term, if not the mindset, has become much more popular in the 2009 campaign.

In Britain, for example, a poll commissioned by The Economist revealed that this sentiment has grown significantly over the last 25 years, with the percentage of British citizens who think the EU is a “bad thing” rising from 30 to 37 percent and those who dislike being in the union rising even more dramatically, from 31 to 43 percent. What’s unclear is which parties will benefit from that change.

UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, currently holds nine seats in an institution it wants to abandon by convincing Britain to withdraw from the EU. A new party, No2EU — Yes to Democracy, has even sprung up in the final weeks before the election. The alliance contends that workers are not well served by EU membership, and takes euroscepticism to a new level: “We will not even sit in the European parliament in the event of winning any seats,” its platform states. “Our candidates will only nominally hold the title MEP and will not board the notorious EU gravy train.”

One thing these two parties do agree on is distaste for the British National Party (BNP), which has six candidates on the ballot. BNP shares their opposition to belonging to the EU, but also says that the U.K. should stop all immigration, which it believes makes “white Britons second-class citizens.” No2EU accuses BNP not only of promoting “racist political ends” but also of not being sufficiently anti-EU, saying it “can’t wait to get on the gravy train and link up with other fascist parties from Italy and France in the European parliament.”

Next door, Ireland’s “no” vote to the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty spawned the Libertas Party, which has made perhaps the biggest splash of any newcomer to these elections with skillful online campaigning. Led by Ireland’s Declan Ganley — who’s hoping to win a seat — Libertas bills itself as the first pan-European party, with more than 600 candidates either running as members of Libertas or affiliated parties. Libertas is actually pro-EU — calling the bloc “one of the most successful projects in world history” — but it insists far-reaching reform is needed, and not with the Lisbon treaty.

Libertas had been steadily gaining popularity in Poland until some of its Irish candidates came out specifically against allowing Poles to migrate to Ireland for work. Former Polish president Lech Walesa drew crowds for Libertas until he said at a Libertas rally in Dublin last week that he would urge Irish voters to support the Lisbon Treaty.

Michael Marsh is a professor of comparative political behavior at Trinity College Dublin and one of the creators of Predict09.eu, an online prognostication tool. Marsh explained that while euroscepticism may sound louder than in the past, part of that is due to EU enlargement, which introduces more voices.

Marsh expects Libertas to win “only a few” seats at best across Europe, despite its hundreds of candidates, whom he described as “unknown in most places, allied with people who are a minority taste.” The party’s platform of pan-European issues will not help it at the polls, he said, since “EP elections are not primarily about Europe, and in many places not about Europe at all,” as voters tend to use the occasion as a comment on their national governments.

According to Predict09, UKIP will lose half the seats it won in 2004 and BNP won’t gain any.

Far-right parties have gained strength in many European countries, with candidates running in 23 member states. The number of far-right members of the EP grew from 24 in 1999 to 57 in 2004.

Roma minorities have become a popular target in campaigns in the Czech Republic — where Romas were called “parasites” in a National Party campaign ad — and Hungary, where the Jobbik Party wears paramilitary uniforms evocative of Nazi garb and regularly denounces Romas and Jews. Jobbik might win a seat; the National Party is not expected to. In Austria, however, 20 percent or more of the vote could go to extreme right-wing parties.

Against the backdrop of such severe messages, the platform of Sweden’s Pirate Party seems downright benign — unless you’re a government regulator or a member of Sweden’s mainstream political parties, that is. The Pirate Party is the third most popular political group in Sweden at the moment. Its main thrust is not simply support for file-sharing and free downloads. For that, deputy party leader Christian Engstrom joked, you just need a good broadband connection, not a political party.

“We see ourselves as a civil rights party, (for) the right to privacy; in particular to have your home and your correspondence private,” Engstrom explained. “It’s wrong if the government starts routinely monitoring who you contact, for instance, and that’s happening unfortunately” under new EU directives requiring governments to retain personal online data.

The Swedish Pirate Party message has inspired similar parties to pop up in many other countries, including the United States. Germany is the only country other than Sweden where a Pirate candidate is running for the EP.

Engstrom will be heading to Brussels if the party’s support in the voting booth mirrors its polling numbers. He has reason to hope. After four activists from Pirate Bay, a file-sharing site, were sentenced to jail in May for copyright infringement, “our membership tripled in a week,” Engstrom said. “Net politics are interesting to ordinary people and it’s an area where the EP has a lot to say.”

But whether a large number of “ordinary people” find the message of the Pirates — or any other party — interesting enough to actually get out and cast their ballots remains in doubt. That question will start being answered on Thursday, as nine member states kick off the polling.

Read more about the European Parliament elections:

Reasons to care about the European Parliament elections

Austria's far-right shows strength

Brussels warily watches voter turnout decline