(photo credit: AP)
A British far-right party won its first-ever parliamentary seats in European Union elections as the extreme right advanced in several countries across the continent on a volatile mix of apathy, anger and economic uncertainty.
The British National Party, which does not accept nonwhite members and calls for the "voluntary repatriation" of immigrants, won two of Britain's 72 seats in the European Parliament, final results showed Monday.
The BNP took about 6.2 percent of the vote, a modest rise from the 5 percent it won at the last such election in 2004. But it made stronger gains in economically battered industrial areas that are traditional strongholds of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party. Labour saw its share of the vote collapse to less than 16 percent, its worst national electoral performance in almost a century.
BNP leader Nick Griffin said his party was "not a racist party" but praised the result as a victory for "indigenous" Britons.
"There is a huge amount of racism in this country," Griffin said Monday. "Overwhelmingly it is directed against the indigenous British majority, which is one reason we have done so well in these elections."
Britain's major parties were quick to condemn the BNP. Labour Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the victory was a "sad moment for British politics." Conservative leader David Cameron said the result was "desperately depressing."
"What the mainstream parties have to do is prove their worth, get on the doorstep, explain to people how we are going to take up their concerns, how we are going to respond to their issues," he said. "That is the way to beat these dreadful people."
The far right made gains across Europe in a poll marked by low turnout. In The Netherlands, Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic Freedom Party won 17 percent of the votes, taking four of 25 seats and becoming the country's second-largest party in the European Parliament.
Wilders has seen his popularity rise in recent months as he has cast himself as a champion of free speech following a Dutch court's order that he be prosecuted for hate speech. He has called Islam's holy book, the Quran, a fascist text and made a film that linked images of terrorist attacks to Quranic verses.
Austria's Freedom Party, which also campaigned on an anti-Islam platform, more than doubled its share of the vote to 13.1 percent. Hungary's Jobbik party, which describes itself as Euro-skeptic and anti-immigration and wants police to crack down on what it calls "Gypsy crime," won three of the country's 22 seats and almost 15 percent of the vote. The Greater Romania Party - which is, among other things, pro-religion, anti-gay and anti-Hungarian - made surprise gains, winning almost 9 percent of the vote and taking two of Romania's 33 seats.
It's unlikely the BNP's breakthrough could be repeated in British national elections, which do not use a system of proportional representation. But the result brings a new level of respectability to the party and its Cambridge University-educated leader Griffin, a former member of the fascist National Front who once called the Holocaust a hoax. Griffin himself won one of the seats.
The BNP capitalized on anger at Britain's mainstream parties - over job losses amid the worst recession in decades; over revelations of lawmakers' sometimes exorbitant expense claims; and over immigration and Britain's changing ethnic mix.
Its victories came in Labour strongholds in northern England, former industrial towns and cities economically devastated by the collapse of British manufacturing since the 1980s.
"I find it very disturbing," said Roy Hunjan, 70, a retired health worker from Birmingham in central England. "They're trying to give a very different image but basically they're the same as the Nazi party.
"When the economy goes wrong, people look for a scapegoat like Hitler was looking at the Jews."
The results do not shift the overall balance of power in the European Parliament, in which a bloc of center-right parties remains the largest group. Fringe groups can use the parliament as a platform for their views but are unlikely to affect the assembly's increasingly influential lawmaking on issues ranging from climate change to cell-phone roaming charges.
"Even with seats in the European Parliament they won't be able to have a lot of influence," said Simon Usherwood of the department of politics at the University of Surrey.
"They will still be too small to have any significant impact. And one of the problems with the far right is often they have trouble working together with other groups."