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Geert Wilders' Far-Right Party Gains In EU Assembly Exit Polls

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A right-wing, stridently anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker's party won more than 15 percent of votes in the country's European Parliament elections Thursday, according to the national broadcaster's exit poll.

The NOS poll predicted the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders will win four of the 25 Dutch seats in the European assembly, one behind the Christian Democrats of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

The exit poll supported pre-vote predictions that right-wing and fringe parties would make gains in many countries, where the economic downturn, cynicism over the union's eastward expansion and worries about relations between Muslims and non-Muslims were expected to fuel a voter backlash against mainstream politicians.

Wilders' party was second only to the Christian Democrats, which got nearly 20 percent of votes, according to the poll.

At a rowdy celebration, he said his party's success was a vote against a sprawling and costly EU _ and against the incumbent Dutch coalition led by Balkenende and Labor Party leader Wouter Bos.

"People have had enough of Europe as it is now _ a big Europe with Turkey possibly joining _ that we spend billions on each year," he said. "I think some people have also had enough of the Balkenende and Bos Cabinet."

Wilders, whose party was contesting European elections for the first time, won support from Protestant and Catholic voters disenchanted with what's perceived as the growing influence of the nation's 800,000 Muslims, many of them immigrants from Morocco and Turkey.

Wilders, creator of a short film that criticizes the Quran as a "fascist book," had urged voters to reject EU involvement in immigration policy and said Turkey should not join the 27-nation bloc.

"Turkey as (an) Islamic country should never be in the EU, not in 10 years, not in a million years," Wilders said after voting.

But Dutch IT manager Olivier van der Post, 40, rejected Wilders' vision.

"I didn't vote for Wilders ... History has shown that if you want prosperity you must open your borders, not close them," he said after voting in Voorburg, a leafy village on the outskirts of The Hague.

Voting was under way in Britain as well, where the far-right British National Party, which bars nonwhite members, was slated to win its first seat. The anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party was also expected to benefit from voter anger at the economic crisis and recent revelations that lawmakers sought public reimbursement for items ranging from horse manure to swimming-pool repairs.

Ivano Chiesa, a 49-year-old hotel proprietor in London, said that he'd voted for the UKIP.

"I don't think our laws should be from Brussels, it's worse than the Parliament here. They really abuse the system," Chiesa said, leaving a polling station in central London's Bloomsbury district.

About 375 million voters across the 27-nation European Union are voting Thursday through Sunday, appointing candidates to 736 seats on the assembly in the second-largest election in the world after India's.

Official results will be announced in Brussels only after voting throughout the bloc is completed.

The NOS poll showed voter turnout in the Netherlands at around 40 percent, unchanged from the last European elections.

The 736-seat European 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 including on immigration, the environment, transport, consumer protection and trade.

The parliament can amend the EU budget _ euro120 billion ($170 billion) this year _ and has a role in appointing the European Commission, the EU administration, and the board of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany.

But polls continentwide consistently show that voters consider their MEPs to be overpaid, remote and irrelevant in their daily lives. Such voter disinterest typically fuels low turnouts and stronger-than-usual showings for protest candidates from the hard left and right of the political spectrum.


Associated Press Writers David Stringer and Nardine Saad in London contributed to this report.

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