London, 15 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Western Europe's left-leaning parties have suffered a big setback in elections for the European Parliament, losing ground to center-right parties, which will now form the largest bloc in the Strasbourg assembly for the first time in 20 years.
But turnout in Sunday's ballot for the 626-seat chamber -- the EU's only directly elected body -- hit a record low, reflecting a perception among many Europeans that the work of the European Parliament is largely marginal to their lives. Only half of the 298 million voters across the 15 EU countries bothered to vote, a much lower percentage than in national ballots.
One commentator said the high level of abstentions and the fact that in most countries, the election was fought more on domestic issues than on European ones has "undermined the assembly's position as the democratic voice of a united Europe."
In Britain, the turnout was only 23 percent; in France and Germany, it was less than 50 percent. Even in Belgium, where voting is obligatory, the abstention rate was a high 15 percent.
Analysts say the low turnout helped the conservatives against the ruling Socialists, who lost their 20-year dominance as the European Parliament's biggest group. But the low turnout also suggests the importance of the swing to the right should not be exaggerated.
Despite the record number of abstentions, the election is being seen as a verdict on left-wing parties who rule alone or in coalition in most of the EU's 15 nations. The vote reflects widespread disenchantment.
One analyst said the results suggest voters remain unmoved by what has been portrayed as NATO's victory in Kosovo and are more concerned by the sluggish performance of EU economies.
Voters were particularly harsh on the center-left parties of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom conceded that the vote represents a major political setback.
The defeat was particularly crushing for Schroeder's governing Social Democrats, whose share of the vote plunged to just 31 percent, compared with 41 percent in national elections nine months ago. The vote -- signaling disillusionment with Schroeder's economic policies -- feeds speculation that his red-green coalition might not last its full term. Of particular concern is German unemployment, which is still more than 10 percent and close to 20 percent in parts of eastern Germany.
In Britain, the ruling Labor Party's share of the vote sank to 28 percent, the first sign that Blair's honeymoon with voters is over. Analysts say the vote shows growing skepticism about Blair's plans to align Britain more closely with the EU's goals of full economic and political union. Blair said he needs to reflect on the lessons:
"These are very disappointing results. I don't pretend otherwise. And we have got to listen and reflect upon the lessons of the election. In particularly, obviously, the turnout was very poor indeed. Fewer than one in four people entitled to vote actually voted in this election. We have to reflect on this as well. This is something that has been repeated, more or less, across Europe."
In France, the left finished first, but with just one-fifth of the ballot, only winning because of splits in the mainstream right. In Italy, the ruling leftists managed to hold their own. But elsewhere, the dismal news for the left was repeated across Europe, including in smaller nations, such as Denmark and Portugal.
In Belgium, where national elections were also held, voters rejected the center-left government of Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene because of a food-poisoning crisis. He resigned yesterday after the scandal, which has seen many foods removed from supermarket shelves amid fears of contamination by a cancer-causing agent.
The European Parliament is organized into multicountry political groups. Overall, the results mean that the largest group will be Christian Democrats and conservatives. Socialist and left-leaning parties will form the second-largest grouping. Liberal Democrat and Green parties have also been given, once again, an effective voice.
Still, analysts say the elections have shown that most European voters remain unexcited about what has been described as the "world's only experiment in cross-border democracy."
The problem for the European Parliament remains a difficult one: How to shed its image as a "toothless talk shop," as it is often referred.
Since the first direct elections in 1979, the parliament has expanded its power and influence, becoming one of the EU's key institutions, along with the European Commission and the decision-making EU Council of Ministers. Originally set up as a consultative assembly, its powers have grown to the point that it has the right to amend or veto much of the EU's legislation.
It can reject the EU budget, veto international agreements or even block the expansion of the EU. It can also call for the dismissal of the European Commission, a power that it exercised for the first time earlier this year when a report revealed that cronyism and corruption were endemic.
EU Commissioner Leon Brittan argues that people have not yet realized that what happens in the European Parliament matters because the parliament has the power to change people's lives -- by voting in favor or against laws about the environment, about economic matters, about trade.
But the fact that such a large percentage of Europe's almost 300 million eligible voters failed to turn out to cast their ballot shows that the parliament's legislators and officials need to think long and hard about how to address its credibility problem.