Big groups to retain power in EU parliament
The balance of power in the European Parliament would stay broadly the same if elections were held today, national polls indicate. The mainstream parties would lose some ground, while far left and far right parties would gain.
The centre-right EPP-ED group would fall from 284 seats to around 265. The centre-left PES faction would drop from 215 to about 195 and the liberal ALDE group would dip from 103 to around 95.
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The results come from extrapolating 19 national opinion polls published in January and February, in the early convulsions of the financial crisis.
The smaller groups - the far-left GUE-NGL, the Greens, the right-wing UEN and the eurosceptic IND/DEM - are harder to call because they consist of more fringe party and independent members, many of which don't show up on national surveys.
Despite this, polls suggest GUE-NGL would become the fourth largest faction, with about 40 seats, followed by the Greens and UEN on 35 each.
The mix would leave some 70 seats to be contested out of a total of 736. Far-right groups are poised to scoop at least 20. The new anti-Lisbon treaty Libertas party is also likely to do well and may put IND/DEM out of business. Libertas' French branch alone is set to take four seats.
Shifting allegiances may complicate the picture. The UK Conservative party has promised to leave the EPP-ED and may form a new group with the Czech centre-right ODS party.
Meanwhile, Italian right-wing party Alleanza Nationale is leaving UEN for the EPP-ED-linked Il Popolo della Liberta party of Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.
Putting all this together, the new parliament could see EPP-ED on around 235, PES with 200, ALDE on 90, GUE-NGL with 40, the new British Conservative-led group on 40, the Greens with 35 and UEN just above 25. There could also be a new far-right or a new eurosceptic group. To form a political 'family' in the parliament, a grouping must have a minimum of 25 MEPs from at least seven countries.
"Opinion polls in previous European elections (particularly with four months to go) have tended to slightly over-estimate support for governing parties and large opposition parties, and to underestimate support for small extreme parties, particularly anti-European movements," London School of Economics expert Simon Hix said.
The elections will take place between 4 and 7 June. With banks wobbling, factories closing and people protesting on the streets, the economic crisis is likely to cause political hurricanes in Europe in the run-up to the vote.
Last week, the Latvian government fell.
National opinion polls are a crude way of forecasting EU elections, however. The EU vote is largely based on list systems, where parties put out nationwide or near-nationwide lists of MEPs for voters to choose from, instead of choosing between individuals in local constituencies. Most of these lists are not yet out.
EU elections also tend to favour radical parties because of low turnout and the perception that the European Parliament has little impact on daily life. A European Commission survey in January showed that just 34 percent of people intend to vote.
Radical parties do well under low turnout circumstances as their highly-motivated supporters go to the urn in proportionally greater numbers than mainstream voters. The air of levity makes people happier to make protest votes, while still supporting a 'safe pair of hands' in national politics.
Zooming in on some of the changes since 2004, EPP-ED parties have surged in the UK, Italy and Poland but have suffered in Germany, the Czech Republic, Greece and Hungary. A February corruption scandal in Spain's centre-right Partido Popular could also hurt.
PES parties have gained ground in Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But French socialists look to be down by 13 seats. The Italian centre-left Partito Democratico, which sends MEPs to both PES and ALDE, is in disarray after its leader, Walter Veltroni, resigned last week.
Liberals are on the up in Germany and France. But the fate of the Polish liberal delegation - six MEPs from tiny parties - remains unclear until the Polish lists come out.
The far-left has inched forward in Germany, France, Greece and Portugal, while holding its ground in the rest of Europe, except in the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, far right supporters are one the rise. The Dutch anti-Islam PVV group is set to scoop five seats. France's admittedly divided Front National another five and Austria's nationalist FPO and BZO are together likely to send five between them as well.