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updated: 5/25/2014 7:11 PM

5 reasons Europe's elections actually matter this time

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  • A man casts his ballot for the European elections and a local referendum on the Tempelhof field in a polling station in Berlin, Germany, on Sunday.

    A man casts his ballot for the European elections and a local referendum on the Tempelhof field in a polling station in Berlin, Germany, on Sunday.
    Associated Press

Washington Post

LONDON -- It's an election like no other: One continent; 28 nations; 16,000 candidates; 350 million eligible voters.

The European parliamentary elections come around only once every five years, and every time they do, the world reacts with a giant, collective shrug. As ever-lower turnout rates show, even Europeans seem indifferent to their one chance to directly choose the EU's leaders. Few Europeans can name who represents them in Strasbourg, or describe what those representatives do once they get to that charming but out-of-the-way French city.

And yet, this year's vote, ending Sunday, could be far more interesting than most. It could also matter more. Here's why.

1. Europe is becoming deeply polarized: European politics were once played between the 40-yard lines, to borrow a distinctly non-European metaphor. It was the center-right vs. the center-left, with consensus on core issues and disagreement around the edges. But now the key matchup is the mainstream against the fringe. And with European economies still in the doldrums, the fringe appears to be gaining.

In Italy, the big winner could be a comedian who wants a referendum on getting out of the euro. In France, polls favor the heir to a pioneer of the European fringe who's sought to clean up her party's well-earned reputation for anti-Semitism. In Britain, the leading contender is a stockbroker-turned-champion of the little guy who married a German but says he wouldn't want to live next to a Romanian.

Throw in a Greek neo-Nazi party that is expected to win seats for the first time, and it's clear that for good or ill, Europe's mainstream is about to get a jolt.

2. The European Parliament actually has some power: In the bureaucratic swamp that is the EU -- where commissions and councils and courts all bleed together into one big morass of transnational democracy -- it's always been hard to know exactly what the European Parliament does. Often, it hasn't done much, with the E.U.'s real power wielded by national governments.

But the 751-member parliament gets new authority this year. Most notably, a majority will have to approve the selection of an EU Commission president -- the top job in Brussels. The parliament also gets a say on matters ranging from civil liberties to economic integration.

Trade issues could be particularly important. The Obama administration has made the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership -- TTIP, for those in the know -- a major priority of the president's second term. The deal also matters to European governments still looking for ways to get out from under the wreckage of a devastating recession. But TTIP will have to go through Europe's parliament, and neither the far left nor the far right is a fan.

3. The results will resonate domestically: These may be European elections, with no direct bearing on national governments. But the outcome matters at home. A strong showing by the leftist Syriza party in Greece could knock the center-right government off balance, and possibly force early elections. If comedian Beppe Grillo's party wins in Italy, it will deal an early and critical blow to the fledgling government of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. In Britain, a victory for the U.K. Independence Party could push Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative party further to the right, and pressure opposition leader David Miliband to match Cameron's promise of a referendum on EU membership.

If fringe parties do especially well in the European vote, it could also give them momentum going into national elections. Britain's vote, for instance, is now just a year away, and UKIP is positioning itself to play the spoiler.

4. Vladimir is watching: Perhaps no one outside Europe is paying closer attention to the European elections than Russia's president. Ukraine's crisis has hardly been a blip in the election campaign, but it could become a major issue in parliament if the anti-establishment parties do well. That's because those on both the far right and the far left are serious admirers of Putin, who they see as just the sort of nationalist, tradition-minded, Alpha male that Europe so sorely lacks.

A strong showing by the fringe could drive a wedge through Europe at exactly the moment the continent's leaders are trying to hold the line against Moscow.

5. And so is Conchita: Europe's in the midst of a culture war no less bitterly fought than the one in the United States. In the struggle between modernists and traditionalists, the former scored a resounding win this month when Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst triumphed in the ever-over-the-top Eurovision Song Contest.

But the Bearded Lady's victory has sparked a backlash. The floods in the Balkans? They're Conchita's fault, according to some traditionalists.

Far-right parties have campaigned against the decadence of 21st-century culture, and for the need to return to traditional values. Eurovision may have been the moment for Europe's progressives to shine. But will this month's other great exercise in continentwide democracy -- the parliamentary vote -- mark the revenge of the right?

We find out after Sunday.

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