Irish, Czechs hold EU vote after Dutch far-right gains

In Ireland, with around 20 percent of the population born outside the country and record levels of asylum seekers, anti-migrant sentiment has escalated.
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, BelgiumFile Photo | Reuters

BRUSSELS: Irish voters picked up the baton on day two of marathon EU elections Friday, after the Netherlands kicked off the ballot with a strong showing by the far right.

Ireland's 37-year-old prime minister Simon Harris voted near his home in the village of Delgany south of Dublin just after polls opened at 7 am (0600 GMT), before a whistlestop tour to canvass for both local and European Parliament elections.

"I admire his energy, although I don't vote for his party," said Keith O'Reilly, a 41 year-old IT worker, on his way out of the polling station.

"They're getting so many things wrong, the migration issue for one thing," he told AFP.

For the first time in an Irish EU vote, many candidates are running on an anti-immigration platform, either as independents or for fringe nationalist parties.

Polls in the Czech Republic were to open later at 1000 GMT, ahead of Sunday's main election day when most of the European Union's 27 nations -- including powerhouses Germany and France -- will vote.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium
Netherlands kicks off four days of European Union elections across 27 nations

Exit polls after the vote in the Netherlands showed the Freedom Party (PVV) of anti-immigration Dutch eurosceptic Geert Wilders getting a boost in the incoming EU legislature, in second place with seven seats.

Polls have pointed to a string of gains for the far-right across the bloc -- up to a quarter of the EU's 720 parliament seats.

But the tight Dutch result -- in which Frans Timmermans' Green-left alliance looked set for first place -- might provide some comfort for centrists hoping to maintain their majority.

That was the early assessment of Eurasia Group's managing director Mujtaba Rahman.

"There'll be lots of noise over next few days about the far right surge in EU. The reality is more boring," he wrote on X, predicting that "the centre will largely hold".

Grievances

The EU vote comes at a time of major geopolitical instability almost two and a half years into Russia's war on Ukraine.

The far right is looking to tap into grievances among the bloc's 370 million eligible voters, fatigued by a succession of crises from the Covid pandemic to the fallout of Moscow's invasion.

In Ireland, with around 20 percent of the population born outside the country and record levels of asylum seekers, anti-migrant sentiment has escalated.

The main question though remains whether Harris's centre-right Fine Gael will win a bigger vote share than the main opposition party Sinn Fein, with local elections held the same day.

"It's Election Day! If you want CHANGE vote Sinn Fein today," the party posted in an early morning message.

Support for the leftist-nationalist Sinn Fein has declined sharply, with its progressive and pro-migration stances appearing at odds with many of its core working-class voters.

At EU-level, the prospect of a lurch to the right has rattled the European Parliament's main groupings, the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and the leftist Socialists and Democrats.

They remain on course to be the two biggest blocs but current European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, of the EPP, may need support from part of the far right to secure a second term.

With an eye on the horse-trading that may be needed, von der Leyen has been courting Italian premier Giorgia Meloni, who heads the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party.

Apathy

To the east, Czech politicians face widespread apathy to the EU vote, after the country had the second lowest turnout last time around in 2019 at 28.72 percent.

Polls put the centrist ANO movement of billionaire former prime minister Andrej Babis in the lead, ahead of a centre-right coalition.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium
Key issues hanging over the EU elections

In a message to voters early Friday, Babis urged them to "expel from the European Parliament the green fanatics and the pro-migration enthusiasts who hae settled down there."

Fears of Russian meddling were also raised in the vote run-up after Czech authorities busted a website alleged to be a Kremlin front pushing Russian propaganda.

The probe into the Voice of Europe website has since spread to Belgium -- home of the European Parliament -- after allegations EU lawmakers were paid by the outlet.

Over the weekend, scrutiny will shift to the EU's bigger economies as they open polling stations.

Marine Le Pen's National Rally is predicted to come out on top in France, as is Meloni's party in Italy and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's far-right Fidesz.

In Germany, the extreme-right AfD is polling second, behind the opposition conservatives. In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party looks on track for victory.

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium
Nationalist parties, far-left on the rise ahead of Sunday's federal elections in Belgium

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