BRUSSELS -- Europe was leaning to the right ahead of European Parliament elections Sunday, with voters in many countries favoring conservative parties against a backdrop of economic crisis.
Opinion polling showed right-leaning governments with edges over their opposition in Germany, Italy and France. Conservative opposition parties were tied or ahead in Britain, Spain, and some smaller countries.
The parliament has evolved over the past 50 years from a consultative legislature to one with the right to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws. But for many voters and politicians, the Europe-wide elections were most important as a snapshot of national political sentiment.
High unemployment across Europe has increased voter dissatisfaction with mainstream national parties, and skepticism over the EU's power to help spur recovery.
Polls predicted record low turnout and small but symbolically important gains for far-right groups and other fringe parties in countries from Britain to Hungary.
Groups like the all-white British National Party could use EU assembly seats as a platform for extremist views, but were not expected to affect the parliament's increasingly influential lawmaking on 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 holds hearings to approve candidates for the European Commission, the EU administration and board of the European Central Bank.
But many voters consider their European Parliament members - who earn euro7,665 ($10,430) a month - to be overpaid, remote and irrelevant.
"I know they run up heaps of expenses. They don't seem to miss too many meals!" Mary McAllister, 32, said after voting Friday inside a Catholic church social hall in Dublin.
The parliament has been a forum for consensus politics, and right-leaning parties have taken up business regulation and social protection initiatives more traditionally associated with the left. The outgoing assembly passed laws slashing mobile phone costs, banning toxic chemicals from toys and barring the import of dog and cat fur and seal products, among other issues.
Polls ahead of Sunday's vote showed Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats leading the center-left Social Democrats in Germany, which holds national elections in September. Merkel hopes to form a center-right government after the national vote with the pro-business Free Democrats, whose ratings have strengthened during the recession.
Sarkozy in Polls
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party has steadily held the lead in polls, with the Socialist Party second.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People's Party held a two-digit lead over his main center-left rival in the most recent polling despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old model.
In Britain, dissident Labour legislators said a plot to oust Prime Minister Gordon Brown could accelerate when expected dismal results in the European elections were announced.
Opponents say the Labour leader has been so tainted by the economic crisis and a scandal over lawmakers' expenses that Conservatives are virtually guaranteed to win a national election that must be called by June 2010.
Polls showed good news for left-leaning parties in some countries, such as Greece and Portugal.
But an informal forecast by the political science Web site http://www.predict09.eu site anticipated Conservatives winning 262 seats against 194 for the Socialists and 85 for the Liberals in 736-seat European Parliament, roughly the same proportions as in the last parliament.
In Spain, where the recession has driven unemployment to 17.4 percent, Europe's highest, a close race was expected between the ruling Socialists and conservative opposition. A poll published May 31 in the El Mundo newspaper showed the conservatives taking a few more seats.
Poland's governing pro-business Civic Platform party was expected to claim around half of the country's 54 seats, followed by the conservative nationalist Law and Justice party - a shift to the right for Poland at the European parliament.
Center-right and -left parties in Austria were expected to lose seats to smaller groups like the far-right Freedom Party, which has campaigned on a strong anti-Islam platform. Its posters proclaim "The Occident in Christian hands" and describe voting day as "the day of reckoning."
Hungary's Socialist Party
Hungary's governing Socialist Party has been burdened by a highly unpopular former leader and Hungary's deep economic crisis, which has forced a series of austerity measures like higher taxes and lower social subsidies.
Pollsters expect the main center-right opposition party, Fidesz, to win at least 15 of 22 seats. Jobbik, a far-right party that is accused by critics of racism and anti-Semitism and is not in the Hungarian parliament, was expected to win one or two seats.
Voters in eight nations, including Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, cast ballots in the three days leading up to Sunday's voting in the rest of the 27-nation EU.
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Elaine Ganley in Paris, Daniel Woolls in Madrid, David Stringer in London, Constant Brand in Brussels, Ryan Lucas in Warsaw, George Jahn in Vienna, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Alison Mutler in Bucarest, Romania, and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.