Voters in 19 nations go the polls on Sunday to elect a new European Parliament amid fears of record low turnout and gains for fringe parties in protest at the economic recession blighting the continent.
Europe's Super Sunday will see electors from heavyweights France, Germany, Italy and Spain cast their ballots, as governments in Britain and Ireland reel from local elections held at the same time as their EU polls.
Opinion polls suggest poor turnout could favour extreme left- and right-wing formations, although probably not enough to upset the balance in the new 736-seat assembly, which is slowly gaining power in EU decision-making.
The European assembly is the only EU institution elected by universal suffrage, and the conservative European People's Party, expected to be returned as the biggest bloc, has gradually gained power there over the years.
The election in the Netherlands Thursday was a controversial example of how the worst fears of pro-Europeans and experts might have been realised.
In its first-ever EU polls, Dutch far-right and anti-Islamic lawmaker Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom came second with 17 percent of the vote, winning four seats in the assembly, according to near-complete results.
Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's Christian Democrats lost over four percentage points to finish with less than 20 percent of the vote.
Release of the Dutch results broke rules banning their publication before the close of polls across the 27-nation bloc on Sunday.
The European Commission, whose president Jose Manuel Barroso could be confirmed for another five-year term by the parliament, wants an explanation and is mulling possible action against the Netherlands.
The low turnout many feared was also evident, with 36.5 percent of voters in the Netherlands -- one of the six founding EU member states, taking part, down from 39.2 percent in 2004.
Turnout has fallen with each EU election since the first in 1979, despite the growing role the parliament plays in adopting, amending or rejecting laws and could beat the 45.6 percent record from last time, polls suggest.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the only leader of a large EU nation heading an electoral list, shrugged off all concerns, showing no sign of pressure to explain his ties to an 18-year-old aspiring model.
"The electoral results will represent a terrible defeat for this left, which has substituted an electoral programme -- which it doesn't have -- for calumny," he said Monday, complaining of a smear campaign against him.
Elsewhere economic woes and national concerns appeared to pre-occupy many of those who did head to the polls, which will involve some 375 million Europeans; the world's largest transnational elections.
In Britain, where voting, including for local elections, was held Thursday Prime Minister Gordon Brown battled for survival after several ministers quit. Poor results from the EU polls is liable to reignite backbench unrest.
Exit polls in Ireland, which voted on Friday, suggested the government there had suffered a voter backlash in a triple ballot, including local polls, with the recession biting hard there, but also elsewhere across the continent.
And in the Baltic state of Latvia, left-wing parties rooted in the ethnic Russian minority were among the top performers, while a newborn government party also made major strides, exit polls indicated on Sunday.