European Parliament elections: Far right sees gains in exit polls

BRUSSELS — The European Union may be tilting to the political right, with the first forecasts in the European Parliament elections showing voters punishing ruling centrists and boosting parties that have made populist economic appeals and taken hard-right positions on immigration.

In Germany, while the center right was comfortably leading in exit polls, there was boisterous flag waving on Sunday at Alternative for Germany headquarters, as the far-right party celebrated its finish as the “second strongest force.”

Exit polls estimated that the Afd had won 16 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent last time. That’s despite recent scandals that could have softened support. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz saw big losses, according to the polls, as did the Green Party that is part of his governing coalition.

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party was also celebrating on Sunday after a forecast based on pre-election polling showed the party placing first for the first time.


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And a Dutch exit poll released Thursday indicated that Geert Wilders’s hard-right Party for Freedom had made the biggest gains in the Netherlands, winning seven seats.

The once-every-five-years European Parliament elections amount to the world’s largest democratic exercise outside India. For four days, citizens of the European Union’s 27 member states have been casting ballots to determine the 720 representatives that sit in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Since the last elections in 2019, once-fringe hard right parties have moved into the political mainstream in Europe, and the results seemed to reflect those tectonic shifts.

Although we won’t know the final tally until Monday, forecasts and partial results were being released into the night on Sunday.

The elections come at a moment when many E.U. countries are pushing for the kind of closer cooperation and integration that guided a coordinated response to the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while a vocal chorus of conservative, nationalist figures are pushing back, wary of what they cast as overreach.

The European Parliament is limited in power, and the rising far-right parties are fragmented, but if they can agree to work together, they could influence the bloc’s position on major issues for years to come — cementing the E.U.’s increasingly restrictive approach to migration, frustrating efforts to meet climate goals and weakening support for Ukraine.

And although protests votes are always a prominent feature of these elections, the outcome is being closely watched as a sign of voter sentiment ahead of upcoming elections in both Europe and the United States. It could also undermine centrist leaders in Germany and France whose parties are set to underperform, and strengthen the hand of the continent’s hard-right star, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

The final election results, once they are in, will not be the last word, but the beginning of weeks, or even months, of negotiation as the representatives form political groups and officials vie for the union’s top jobs.

A key question is whether European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will get another five-year term leading the E.U.’s executive. After the last elections, in 2019, she secured parliament’s approval by nine votes — and many wonder if it could be closer this time.

In the past, harder right parties were taking votes away from center-right parties, but these days, they are also making inroads with electorates who once voted more to the left. “The far-right has siphoned off voters, certainly in France, Germany and Italy, and some Scandinavian countries, who would have historically voted for left parties,” said Catherine Fieschi, a political analyst and fellow at the Robert Schuman Center of the European University Institute in Florence. “Part of the story of the right is the failure of the left in some of these countries.”

A big unknown is the extent to which Meloni will cooperate with France’s Le Pen, whose National Rally shares Meloni’s hard line views on immigration and some social issues, but is far more eurosceptic and deeply wary of additional E.U. support for Ukraine.

Le Pen, in turn, has tried to distance herself from those further to the right, including Germany’s hard-line euroskeptic and anti-immigration AfD.

Ahead of the European Parliament elections, the AfD’s lead candidate, Maximilian Krah, was banned from campaigning after suggesting that not all of Nazi Germany’s SS officers should be considered criminals.

At an AfD rally about 17 miles north of Berlin last week, there were calls for the expulsion of migrants and slogans like “Our homeland, our rules.” One person carried a sign with a censored version of the phrase “Everything for Germany” — a banned Nazi slogan that recently got an AfD politician fined roughly $14,000.

In the weeks ahead, analysts will be watching to see if the AfD can inch its way into a far-right coalition of some sort, or whether it will remain on the fringes.

“Central to the question ‘how powerful will the [far right] become?’ said Bettina Kohlrausch, director of the Dusseldorf-based Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), “Is the question ‘Are the conservative parties distancing themselves or not?’”

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