General elections are scheduled on Sunday in Portugal, Turkish occupied northern Cyprus and the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, and the first referendum on the European Union's constitution will take place the same day in Spain. Europe watchers say each of the contests has a significance that goes beyond strictly local concerns.
Portugal is western Europe's poorest country, and European Union statistics show it is losing ground in a world of heightened competition and globalization. So, the election Sunday hinges on the need for urgent economic reforms that can kickstart growth and create jobs. Unemployment is now at seven percent.
Public opinion polls predict that the opposition Socialist Party, under its new leader Jose Socrates, will defeat the incumbent Social Democrats of Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes by a margin of 15 points and, perhaps, secure a majority in Parliament.
Mr. Socrates, an admirer of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, wants Portugal to move away from low-skill, low-growth industries like textiles and footwear, and become technologically modern. He also wants to prune Portugal's huge bureaucracy.
Mr. Santana Lopes ran into almost immediate criticism when he took over as prime minister in July. He relaxed an austerity program aimed at cutting Portugal's budget deficit. That motivated President Jorge Sampaio, who claimed the government had lost its credibility, to call elections one year ahead of schedule.
In neighboring Spain, voters are likely to approve the new EU constitution, despite polls showing that 90 percent of Spaniards have little or no idea what is in it.
Spain has benefited hugely from more than $100 billion in EU subsidies during its 19 years of membership in the bloc. And most citizens are enthusiastic about the Union. But, as Madrid pollster Fernando Vallespin points out, there is uncertainty about the turnout.
"The results are quite clear. Spain will be in favor of the EU constitution, and this lack of real debate among the main parties may create a certain apathy in a large part of the Spanish electorate," he said.
EU officials in Brussels hope that a strong "yes" vote in Spain will influence voters in such countries as France, which is scheduled to hold a similar referendum later this year. But analysts warn that, if less than 40 percent of Spaniards vote on Sunday, any such snowball effect is unlikely.
EU officials also are watching Sunday's Turkish Cypriot elections. Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat, who supports reunification of the divided island, is expected to win a plurality of the votes. But diplomats in Brussels say that will probably have little effect on the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government, which they say has shown no interest in resuming talks with the Turkish Cypriots.
Greek Cypriots, who are now EU citizens, last year rejected a United Nations peace plan for the island, which most Turkish Cypriots supported.Another election that is being watched on Sunday is in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats are running neck-and-neck with the opposition Christian Democrats. Analysts say the poll will test the strength of Mr. Schroeder's party, which is thought to be recovering from a string of electoral defeats last year, after he announced cuts in social programs.