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EU votes as populists seek historic breakthrough
[BRUSSELS] EU parliamentary elections entered a third day of voting on Saturday, as populists hoped to win a major breakthrough and disrupt European politics for the next five years.
Voters from Malta, Slovakia and Latvia headed to the polls, with most of the bloc's 28 member states - including big players Germany, France and Italy - to vote on Sunday.
More than 400 million people are eligible to elect 751 members of the European Parliament with the first official results to be announced late Sunday once voting in all EU countries is over.
Polling has shown for months that populists and the anti-immigration far right could make big gains in the vote, which will also help determine who replaces Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission.
An exit poll after voting in the Netherlands on Thursday however showed a surprise victory for pro-EU socialists, giving hope to establishment forces elsewhere in the bloc that the populist tide could be limited.
"To all our friends across Europe still campaigning, this one is for you too!" said Dutchman Frans Timmermans, the lead socialist candidate and one of the main contenders to replace Mr Juncker.
Europhiles also had reason to cheer from an exit poll in Ireland that suggested Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael party, which is committed to closer EU integration, was in the lead.
Turnout is a major concern in the EU elections, with voters in Slovakia historically the least interested, having just 13 percent show up for the last polls five years ago.
Britain voted on Thursday, a day before Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation following a months-long Brexit crisis, though the result will not be revealed until Sunday.
The Brexit Party, which was only set up this year by veteran eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage, is expected to score a resounding win in the UK vote.
Britain was never supposed to have participated in the EU vote but Ms May was forced to do so after delaying Brexit beyond the original date of March 29 because the UK parliament refused to approve the divorce deal.
'SHAPING THE FUTURE'
On the far right, Matteo Salvini of Italy's anti-immigrant League and Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally (RN) want their Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF) group to become the third largest in Brussels. The League has topped opinion polls in Italy.
Ms Le Pen is seeking to strike a big blow to Emmanuel Macron's French presidency by overtaking his pro-European party Republic on the Move (LREM) and denying the young leader's ambition to shake up the EU.
Polls give her RN party a slight edge, with around 25 per cent support against Mr Macron's 22.5 per cent.
"It is hard to overstate the importance of this week's European Parliament elections," said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group.
"Besides determining the composition of the next Parliament, the results will also be critical in shaping the future character and profile of the European Union," he said.
The establishment is expected to remain strong in several countries, with voters from Spain to the former Soviet Baltic states showing solid backing for the EU.
In Germany, surveys put Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party - a heavyweight in the EU-wide centre-right EPP group - in first place, with the Greens second.
But a rant by star YouTuber Rezo against Ms Merkel went viral in the EU's biggest country, urging the "destruction" of the CDU for making policies for the rich while failing to act on global warming.
Mainstream parties across Europe have jumped to prove their commitment to stopping climate change - spurred by a wave of student strikes across the continent.
The EU has also expressed concern about disinformation campaigns on social media by outside actors - notably Russia - trying to influence the election outcome.
Activists say Facebook has closed news pages and scrapped accounts in its effort to fight back against fake news and avoid the embarrassing scandals that followed the US presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016.