More than 360 million people were eligible to vote in the four-day election, although turnout in EU polls is historically low

Brussels (Belgium) (AFP) - Voting for the EU’s next parliament entered its final stretch Sunday for millions of people, from Vilnius to Madrid, with early exit polls pointing to far-right gains at a pivotal time for the bloc.

Preliminary results are due late Sunday, but far-right parties were on already track to take first place in Austria and second in Germany – where the outcome spelt a stinging defeat for Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

French President Emmanuel Macron's liberal Renaissance party is headed for an election drubbing

Although centrist forces were expected still to dominate the next European Parliament, anti-immigrant parties have been surging across the bloc.

Much attention was now on France, the bloc’s second economy after Germany.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is predicted to score about 30 percent, a big jump since five years ago – and double the score of President Emmanuel Macron’s liberals.

In the French city of Lyon, 83-year-old voter Albert Coulaudon said Macron was getting “mixed up” in too many international issues such as the war in Ukraine. “That scares me,” he said.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen voted in her northern town of Henin-Beaumont

More than 360 million people across the EU’s 27 nations were eligible to vote, over four days since Thursday, to help shape the European Union’s direction over the next five years.

The election comes as the continent is confronted with Russia’s war in Ukraine, global trade tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and the prospect of a disruptive new Donald Trump presidency.

“Right now we are living in a scenario of uncertainty,” Jaime Bajo, a sports centre operator, said as he cast his vote in Madrid.

“I can understand that people feel fear and vote with a hard mindset,” said the 40-year-old, who predicted a “rise of extremist forces” in Europe.

The bloc’s next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen vying for a second term.

- Ascendant far-right -

European voters, hammered by a high cost of living and some fearing immigrants to be the source of social ills, are increasingly persuaded by populist messaging.

Centrist parties are predicted to keep most of the legislature’s 720 seats, but polls suggest they will be weakened by a stronger far right pushing the bloc towards ultraconservatism.

In EU countries closest to Russia, like here in Poland, the spectre of Russia's threat loomed large

In Germany, turnout was the highest since 1979 at 64 percent. But that did not spare Chancellor Olaf Scholz from a dismal night – with all three parties in his troubled coalition behind the conservatives and the far right, exit polls showed.

On 14 percent, Scholz’s Social Democrats trailed the far-right Alternative for Germany, which was seen winning between 16 and 16.5 percent, and well behind the conservative CDU-CSU bloc’s 29.5 percent.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party was leading the vote count according to exit polls, the first time the group has topped a nationwide ballot in the Alpine country.

Florentine Bonaert, a 32-year-old business owner in Vienna did not disclose who she voted for, but said “migration policy was incredibly important” to her, as well as climate change and its impact on future generations.

The bloc's next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen -- who cast her vote in her home country -- seeking a second term

In the Netherlands the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders was beaten into second place on 17.7 percent by the Green-Labour coalition led by former EU commissioner Frans Timmermans, EU parliament estimates showed.

In Italy the far-right ruling Brothers of Italy party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was expected to come out on top.

Meloni is being courted both by von der Leyen – who needs her backing for a second mandate – as well as Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who would like to form a far-right parliament supergroup.

- War worries -

The Hungarian leader has stoked fears of the Ukraine war expanding to one between the West and Russia, blaming Brussels and NATO. As he cast his vote he framed it as a “pro-peace or pro-war election”.

But in eastern EU countries, the spectre of Russia’s threat loomed large.

“I want security, especially for the Baltic states. And greater support for Ukraine to end the war,” said Ieva Sterlinge, a 34-year-old Latvian doctor.

Women wearing 'Bollenhut' pompon hats typical of the Black Forest region line up to vote in Gutach, southern Germany

Likewise in Romania, psychologist Teodora Maia said she cast her vote on “the theme of war, which worries us all, and ecology”.