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And the winner is ...

Center-right parties hold on in European Parliament elections while extremist parties make gains.

Supporters are reflected in television screens as they await results for the European Election at the City Hall in London, June 7, 2009. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — With final figures being tallied across the European Union’s 27 member states, right-leaning incumbent governments are breathing a sigh of relief, having largely escaped the feared punishment of voters displeased with the handling of the economic crisis. 

The center-right parties in the majority in both national governments and the European Parliament (EP) made no major gains overall, but were able to maintain their dominance, holding on to an estimated 263 of the 736 seats. Left-wing parties other than Greens suffered in almost every country, with far-right parties making some significant headway.

Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), the umbrella group for center-right parties in the legislature, are celebrating their victory but acknowledging that the record-low turnout (just over 43 percent) and the presence of more right-wing, anti-EU delegates in this parliament will present challenges over the next five-year term.

The parliament is the only part of the EU bureaucracy directly elected by voters and is charged with approving the EU budget and the membership of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm. As much as 80 percent of national legislation now originates in the EP.

Socialists had hoped that deep concern over the global economic crisis would turn people away from the free-marketeers of the center-right and toward the left-leaning parties that traditionally champion welfare-state policies. But the unique flavor of the European right, which also encompasses a great deal of social welfare, apparently made that shift unnecessary in voters' minds.

Thus, the backlash against standing governments that Socialists (PES) had hoped for just didn’t materialize, leading the group’s president Martin Schulz to lament at length in a late-night news conference Sunday.

“In overall terms, it’s a pretty bitter evening for us,” Schulz said. “We’re bitterly disappointed. We really had expected and hoped for a better result.”

Despite being weakened, and suffering what Schulz called “bad defeats” in some member states, most notably in his own Germany, Socialists easily held on to their spot as a the second largest political group in parliament with an estimated 161 seats.

Greece stood out for giving its Socialist party a victory over the conservative New Democracy government.

Green parties had a very good night, increasing their seats to 52 from 43, especially significant since the total number of parliamentary seats drops to 736 from 785 in this election. They came in third in both France and Germany.

The centrist Liberals (ALDE), as in the last parliament, came in third with 84 spots and are calling themselves the “kingmaker” party, as the EPP will need the support of not just the Socialists but also the Liberals to have enough votes to carry decisions. ALDE’s leader, Graham Watson, said his party was open to cooperation with all except the far right, whose gains he called “regrettable.”

Several far-right and often vociferously anti-immigrant parties are headed for BrusselsAustria, Great Britain, Hungary and the Netherlands have all seen strong showings by such candidates — something the established parties admit will make their cooperation all the more crucial.

Results from the U.K. are prompting particular concern, with the ultra-conservative British National Party picking up possibly two seats and the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party besting Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labor Party along with the major opposition Conservative party.