EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The seventh elections to the European Parliament since the chamber became a democratic elected institution in 1979 are just days away. From 4-7 June, around 375 million eligible voters out of a population of just under 500 million will be able to cast their ballot, making these the largest transnational elections in the world.
However, while it's a pan-European vote, due to national traditions, polling takes place on different days in different countries - and in one case, voting even occurs on different days depending on which part of the country you live in.
Here is a simple guide to the elections - who votes when; who is running; and, most importantly, when the results will be clear.
When do I get to vote?
The bulk of European voters - just over three quarters of the electorate - will head to the ballot box on Sunday, 7 June, while a quarter will vote from the fourth to the sixth.
The Netherlands and the United Kingdom are the sole countries to vote on 4 June, and the Czech Republic and Ireland are the only countries to vote on 5 June, with voters in the former also able to cast their ballot on 6 June.
The rest of Europe votes together, on the seventh, although in some French overseas territories, voting begins on the sixth.
Can I vote in advance of these dates?
In some countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Estonia, early voting has taken place, and despite warnings that voter turn-out will once again reach an all-time low this year, early voter turn-out is up quite a bit on the 2004 vote.
As of Friday (29 May), after nine days of early voting in Sweden, some 3.2 percent of the electorate had cast their ballot, up from 1.68 percent that had done so over the same period in 2004, according to the parliament's press service.
Similarly, over the course of two days of advanced voting in Finland, some 5.6 percent had voted, up from 4.7 percent during the last European elections.
In Estonia, where voters for the first time are able to cast their ballot electronically, some 6,800 voters have performed their democratic duty since 28 May. As of 1 June, early voting will have also been available at some polling stations, the parliament says.
How old do you have to be?
Across Europe, voting age is 18 in most countries, although Austria recently lowered the voting age to 16, hoping for greater voter participation.
Candidates in all but two countries must be at least 18 years old, except in Cyprus and Italy, where the minimum age to be a parliamentarian is 25.
Are there other elections happening at the same time?
Adding to the confusion - but lowering the cost to domestic electoral authorities - in six EU member states, other elections will be taking place concurrently with elections to Strasbourg: regional elections in Belgium, local government elections in Ireland (along with national by-elections in two Dublin constituencies) and the UK, bits of Germany and Malta, and a general election in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Denmark hopes a referendum on royal issues may boost turnout.
Election turnout has fallen in every single European elections since the start in 1979, when turnout was 61.99%. In the last European Elections in 2004 turnout was down to 45.47%.
How long are MEPs in office?
Members of the European Parliament are elected for five-year terms, meaning the next elections will take place in 2014. However, MEPs from Bulgarian and Romania will have only served two years in the chamber, as the two countries first elected their euro-deputies in 2007, when they joined the union.
Some European commissioners are running as MEPs, aren't they?
Five of the current college of European commissioners are running as candidates in the election: information society commissioner Viviane Reding of he Christian Social People's Party in Luxembourg, a centre-right party that sits with the main centre-right group in Strasbourg; development commissioner Louis Michel, running for the Reformist Movement in Belgium, a left-leaning liberal party that sits with the liberals; regional policy commissioner Danuta Hübner of Poland, running for the Civic Platform, which also sits with the centre-right; consumer protection commissioner Meglena Kuneva of Bulgaria, running for the National Movement for Stability and Progress, a liberal party; and education and culture commissioner Jan Figel of Slovakia, running for the centre-right Christian Democratic Movement.
Most of the commissioners are hoping to be re-appointed to the EU executive, but a seat in the house is viewed as an insurance policy.
What are the parties at the European level?
There are seven main groupings within the European Parliament, each of which is linked to a pan-European political party that extends beyond the borders of the European Union, although all candidates still run under national political colours. The EP groupings are formed only after the results of the election are clear, and even then, may still take a few weeks to gel.
Nevertheless, as of the last parliament, the largest party in the house, the European People's Party, brings together the more socially and economically conservative parties from across Europe. The EPP is expected to win the elections once again, albeit with a diminished number of seats.
The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe is a coalition of centrist parties that stretch from the essentially centre-left but pro-free-market deputies of the UK's Liberal Democrats and the Netherlands' D66 to the immigration-sceptic and economically conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), also of the Netherlands.
The Party of European Socialists, the second-biggest bloc in the house and an equally uncomfortably large tent, unites the UK's essentially centre-right Labour Party with the slightly less pro-free-market social democrats of the Parti Socialiste in France, the SPD in Germany, the PSOE in Spain and other Socialist and Labour parties from across the bloc.
The European Greens are a more coherent bunch, although they hew more to the centre in Germany and the Czech Republic while their colleagues from the UK and Scandinavia consider themselves to be more a part of the self-styled "alterglobalisation" movement.
There is also a second conservative grouping in the parliament, the Union for a Europe of the Nations, although this is expected to disintegrate after the elections, with the two parties that lead the group - Ireland's governing party, the centrist Fianna Fail and Italy's post-fascist Allianza Nazionale - leaving the UEN for the Liberals and the European People's Party respectively.
To the left of the PES, the United European Left/Nordic Green Left is the far-left group in the parliament.
Lastly, eurosceptics of left and right, including the UK Independence Party, Denmark's June Movement and French Mouvement pour la France lead by Philippe de Villiers in the last sitting of the house came together under the Independence/Democracy umbrella.
When do we find out the results?
Despite the four-day voting period, the full results will be released only after the final polling station has been closed - 10 p.m. Brussels' time on the Sunday evening.
Ahead of the results beginning at 7:15 p.m., three TV debates with prominent public figures on major issues facing Europe have been organised by France 24, Radio France International, Euronews, Canal 24H and Spain's TVE. The debates, taking place on the third floor of the parliament in Brussels, will also be broadcast on EuroparlTV, the parliament's online television station, and Europe by Satellite (EbS) in the 22 official languages of the EU, as well as Arabic and Russian.
The announcement of the results from 10pm will be projected on a giant screen in the parliament's plenary chamber in Brussels and will be available via EbS and EuroparlTV.
This will be followed by live streaming on EuroparlTV of press conferences from the out-going president of the parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, and the various political groupings from 11 p.m. The leaders of the political groups, speaking from Brussels and national capitals, will comment on the first wave of election results.
Results from all 27 member states will be made available as they arrive after this time. British, Cypriot, Czech, Dutch, Irish, Lithuanian, Slovak, should thus appear first.
At some point later in the evening, when sufficient returns can begin to suggest the likely make up of the house, the parliament's services will provide a preliminary prognosis of how the results will shape the composition of the new chamber.