It's an election like no other: One continent; 28 nations; 16,000 candidates; 350 million eligible voters. The European parliamentary elections only come around once every five years, and every time they do, the world reacts with a collective shrug. Yet, this year's vote — which continues through Sunday — could be far more interesting than most. It could also matter more. Here's why:
a new polarization in European politics
The key matchup in European politics 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 Europe's mainstream is about to get a jolt.
European Parliament actually has power
In the bureaucratic swamp that is the E.U., it's been hard to know exactly what the European Parliament does. But the 751-member parliament gets new authority this year. Most notably, a majority will have to approve the selection of a E.U. Commission president, the top job in Brussels. The parliament also gets a say on matters ranging from civil liberties to economic integration.
Results will resonate on the home front
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 a 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 E.U. membership. If fringe parties do especially well in the European vote, it could also give them momentum going into national elections.
Putin is watching
Perhaps no one is paying closer attention than Russia's president. Ukraine could become a major issue if the anti-establishment parties do well. That's because those on both the far right and the far left are serious admirers of Vladimir 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.