BRUSSELS - Europe leaned to the right Sunday as tens of millions of people voted in European Parliament elections, with conservative parties leading or favoured in many countries amid a global economic crisis.

Opinion surveys and exit polls showed right-leaning governments edging the opposition in Germany, Italy, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Conservative opposition parties were tied or ahead in Britain, Spain and some smaller countries.

Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and five other European Union countries cast ballots in the past three days, while the rest of the 27-member bloc voted Sunday. Results for most countries were expected later in the day.

The European 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.

But the Europe-wide elections were most important as a snapshot of national political sentiment. High unemployment across Europe has increased voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties and made many skeptical over the EU's power to help spur economic recovery.

Exit polls showed gains for far-right groups and other fringe parties amid predictions of record low turnout.

In Germany, the conservatives of German Chancellor Angela Merkel were headed for a centre-right majority and her centre-left rivals faced a crushing defeat, exit polls showed, less than four months before a national vote.

With most votes counted in Austria, the main rightist party gained strongly while the Social Democrats, the main party in the ruling coalition, lost substantial ground.

But the big winner in Austria was the rightist Freedom Party, which more than doubled its strength over the 2004 elections to 13 per cent of the vote. It campaigned on an anti-Islam platform.

In the Netherlands, exit polls predicted Geert Wilders' anti-Islamic party would win more than 15 per cent of the country's votes, bruising a ruling alliance of Conservatives and Socialists.

Exit polls in Bulgaria showed the governing Socialist-led coalition facing defeat and the country's right-wing opposition party winning most of the votes.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative UMP party has steadily held the lead in polls, with the Socialist Party second.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Freedom People's Party held a two-digit lead over his main centre-left rival in the most recent polling despite a deep recession and a scandal over allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with an 18-year-old model.

In Britain, dissident Labour legislators said a plot to oust Prime Minister Gordon Brown could accelerate after the party's expected dismal results in the European elections are announced.

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