BRUSSELS – Center-right parties hailed European Parliament election victories as a continent-wide vote for conservative approaches to the economic crisis and pledged Monday to forge ahead.
Right-leaning governments came out ahead in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, while conservative opposition parties won in Britain and Spain.
Many Socialists ran campaigns that slammed center-right leaders for failing to rein in financial markets and spend enough to stimulate faltering economies. But voters did not embrace their cause.
"The center-right has been addressing the economic crisis," said Sara Hagemann, an analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. "The center-left parties failed to sell that message."
Voters angry over poor economic conditions and political scandals punished ruling parties of both stripes in Greece, Austria, Spain, Britain, Bulgaria, Ireland, Hungary and the tiny island of Malta.
And the June 4-7 elections which ended Sunday across the 27-nation bloc saw only 43 percent of 375 million eligible voters cast ballots for representatives to the 736-member EU legislature. The record low turnout pointed to enduring voter apathy about the European Union.
It was a discouraging sign for EU officials hoping Irish voters will approve stronger powers for the EU in a fall referendum. Ireland is the only one of the 27 EU nations that must still ratify the reforms.
The European Union said center-right parties were expected to take the most seats — 267 — in the 736-member parliament. Center-left parties were headed for 159 seats. The remainder were expected to go to smaller groupings.
Reeling from an expenses scandal, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's center-left Labour party finished third behind the anti-European U.K. Independence Party — a crushed defeat that cast more doubt on Brown's future. The Conservatives are expected to win Britain's next national elections.
The vote also saw the all-white British National Party pick up two seats in the EU assembly — joining parties from the Netherlands, Hungary and Austria in a record take for far-right parties across Europe, many with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant platforms.
British lawmakers said the far right's advance was a reflection of anger over immigration issues and the recession that is causing unemployment to soar.
Voters in Italy handed a tepid win to scandal-plagued Premier Silvio Berlusconi and rewarded the anti-immigrant party in his coalition.
With some 97 percent of the vote counted, Berlusconi's Freedom Party had 34.9 percent. The 72-year-old billionaire media mogul predicted at one point that his party might snare as much as 45 percent but he spent much of the campaign fighting off scandal over his wife's allegations of an improper relationship with an 18-year-old model.
Berlusconi's coalition ally, the hardline regional Northern League rose nearly 2 percent, to 10.6 percent. It was the driving force behind recent legislation making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant in Italy.
Germans handed a lackluster victory to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and a historic defeat to their center-left rivals in the European Parliament vote months before a national election.
"We are the force that is acting level-headedly and correctly in this financial and economic crisis," said Volker Kauder, the leader of Merkel's party in the German parliament.
The Social Democrats got an unexpectedly dismal 20.8 percent — the party's worst showing since World War II in any nationwide election.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and a regional sister party won 37.8 percent, down from 44.5 percent five years ago. But the outcome was enough to boost Merkel's hopes of ending the tense left-right "grand coalition" that has led the European Union's most populous nation since 2005, and replacing it with a center-right government.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservatives trounced the Socialists, while an ecology-minded party vaulted to a surprisingly strong third place.
"We will continue to modernize France," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said. He attributed his party's success to the government's energetic handling of the EU's rotating presidency last year, and vowed to loosen France's labor rules to make the country more competitive internationally.
France's Socialists, who dominated the last vote in 2004, suffered a stinging defeat, barely clinging to the No. 2 spot.
"Tonight is a very difficult evening for Socialists in many nations in Europe," said Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament. "(We will) continue to fight for social democracy in Europe."
Austria's main rightist party gained strongly while the ruling Social Democrats lost substantial ground. But the big winner was the rightist Freedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13.1 percent of the vote. It campaigned on an anti-Islam platform.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic party took 17 percent of the country's votes, winning four of 25 seats.
In Greece, the governing conservatives were headed for defeat in the wake of corruption scandals and economic woes.
The Hungarian far-right Jobbik party won three of 22 seats, with the main center-right opposition party, Fidesz, capturing 14 seats and the governing Socialists only four.
Jobbik describes itself as Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration and wants police to crack down on crimes committed by Gypsies. Critics say the party is racist and anti-Semitic.
The EU parliament has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws. Lawmakers get five-year terms and residents vote for lawmakers from their own countries.
The assembly's increasingly influential lawmaking affects issues ranging from climate change to cell-phone roaming charges.
The parliament can also amend the EU budget — euro120 billion ($170 billion) this year — and approves candidates for the European Commission, the EU administration and the board of the European Central Bank.