BRUSSELS — Conservatives scored victories in some of Europe's largest economies Sunday as voters punished left-leaning parties in European parliament elections in France, Germany and other nations.
Some right-leaning parties said the results vindicated their reluctance to spend more on company bailouts and fiscal stimulus to combat the global economic crisis.
The European Union said center-right parties were expected to take the most seats _ 267 _ in the 736-member parliament. Center-left parties were headed for 159 seats. The remainder were expected to go to smaller groupings.
Right-leaning governments were ahead of the opposition in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium, while conservative opposition parties were leading in Britain and Spain.
Greece was a notable exception, where the governing conservatives were headed for defeat in the wake of corruption scandals and economic woes.
Germans handed a lackluster victory to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and a historic defeat to their center-left rivals in the European Parliament vote months before a national election.
The Social Democrats got an unexpectedly dismal 20.8 percent _ the party's worst showing since World War II in any nationwide election.
Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and a regional sister party won 37.8 percent, down from 44.5 percent five years ago. But the outcome was enough to boost Merkel's hopes of ending the tense left-right "grand coalition" that has led the European Union's most populous nation since 2005, and replacing it with a center-right government.
"We are the force that is acting level-headedly and correctly in this financial and economic crisis," said Volker Kauder, the leader of Merkel's party in the German parliament.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing conservatives trounced the Socialists, while an ecology-minded party vaulted to a surprisingly strong third place, according to official results.
The Socialists, who dominated the last vote in 2004, suffered a stinging defeat, barely clinging to the No. 2 spot.
"Tonight is a very difficult evening for Socialists in many nations in Europe," said Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament. "(We will) continue to fight for social democracy in Europe."
Far-right groups and other fringe parties gained in record low turnout estimated at 43.5 percent of 375 million eligible, reflecting widespread disenchantment with the continentwide legislature.
Britain elected its first extreme-right politician to the European Parliament, with the British National Party winning a seat in northern England's Yorkshire and the Humber district.
The far-right party, which does not accept nonwhites as members, was expected to possibly win further seats as more results in Britain were announced.
Lawmakers with Britain's major political parties said the far right's advance was a reflection of anger over immigration issues and the recession that is causing unemployment to soar.
Near-final results showed Austria's main rightist party gaining strongly while the ruling Social Democrats lost substantial ground. But the big winner was the rightist Freedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13.1 percent of the vote. It campaigned on an anti-Islam platform.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic party took 17 percent of the country's votes, taking four of 25 seats.
The Hungarian far-right Jobbik party won three of 22 seats, with the main center-right opposition party, Fidesz, capturing 14 seats and the governing Socialists only four.
Jobbik describes itself as Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration and wants police to crack down on petty crimes committed by Gypsies. Critics say the party is racist and anti-Semitic.
Fringe groups could use the EU parliament as a platform for their extreme views but were not expected to affect the assembly's increasingly influential lawmaking on issues ranging from climate change to cell-phone roaming charges.
The EU parliament has evolved over five decades from a consultative legislature to one with the power to vote on or amend two-thirds of all EU laws. Lawmakers get five-year terms and residents vote for lawmakers from their own countries.
The parliament can also amend the EU budget _ euro120 billion ($170 billion) this year _ and approves candidates for the European Commission, the EU administration and the board of the European Central Bank.
Many Socialists ran campaigns that slammed center-right leaders for failing to rein in financial markets and spend enough to stimulate faltering economies.
"People don't want a return to socialism and that's why the majority here will be a center-right majority," said Graham Watson, leader of the EU's center-right Liberal Democrat grouping.
In Spain, the conservative Popular Party won two more seats than the ruling Socialists _ 23 to 21 seats _ with over 88 percent of the vote counted.
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 a young model. Italian results were being released Monday.
In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was facing a showdown with rebel lawmakers on Monday after the party's expected dismal results in the European parliament and local elections were announced.
Brown has been struggling with the economic crisis and a scandal over lawmakers' expenses. The opposition Conservatives are expected to win the next national election, which must be called by June 2010.
According to a BBC projection, Labour was trailing the United Kingdom Independence Party in third place. It put the main opposition Conservative Party at 27 percent, UKIP at 17 and Labour at 16, followed by smaller parties.
"This time we have come second in a major national election. That is a hell of an achievement," said Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP _ which advocates Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.
An exit poll showed Irish ruling party Fianna Fail, which supports EU plans to strengthen its authority, trailing its rival Fine Gael by 23 percent to 30 percent.
The outcome of many Irish races was unclear early Monday. The count was halted for an hour Sunday night in Ireland's North West EU constituency after candidate Declan Ganley, founder of anti-treaty party Libertas, raised procedural questions about the opening of ballot boxes.
An exit poll in Poland showed Prime Minister Donald Tusk's pro-business Civic Platform party with 45.3 percent and the nationalist and conservative opposition Law and Justice party second with 29.5 percent _ a shift to the center-right for Poland at the European parliament.
The Democratic Left Alliance-Labor Union garnered 12 percent.
In Sweden, the Pirate Party, which advocates shortening the duration of copyright protection and allowing noncommercial file-sharing, looked set to take its first seat with 7.4 percent of the vote.
Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and five other EU nations cast ballots over the last three days, while the rest of the 27-nation bloc voted Sunday.
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson and Patrick McGroarty in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid, Raphael Satter and David Stringer in London, Constant Brand in Brussels, Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, Ryan Lucas in Warsaw, George Jahn in Vienna, Derek Gatopoulos and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Alison Mutler in Bucarest, Romania, Keith Moore and Malin Rising in Stockholm and Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed to this report.