Earlier this year we saw the world’s largest democratic election, in India. This week, the second-largest takes place: an election across the 27 countries of the EU for the 736 members of the European parliament.

Each country runs its election separately, so there is no standardisation of voting systems or even of date: most of the voting will take place on Sunday, the traditional voting day in most of Europe, but the UK and the Netherlands vote on Thursday, Ireland on Friday, and five others on Saturday.

Anyone seriously interested in following the election should refer to the series of country-by-country guides posted by Ben Raue at the Tally Room. What follows is a quick summary of the overall picture.

The European parliament has a well-established reputation as a “talk shop” with no real power. That is unfair; it does have considerable and steadily increasing powers to determine policy for the EU and supervise the operations of the European Commission. Nonetheless, its role is still limited by comparison to most national parliaments. That combined with general apathy (or even hostility) towards the EU accounts for low levels of voter turnout (just 45.6% in 2004).

Seven broad party groups are represented in the outgoing parliament, together with some 30 independents, but more than three-quarters of the MPs belong to one of three groups: the EPP-ED (centre-right) with 284 seats, PES (social democrats, 215) and ALDE (liberal-centrists, 103). In practice, the EPP-ED and PES control the parliament in an informal coalition.

All countries use some form of proportional representation, so dramatic shifts in numbers between the groups are unlikely. Moreover, because most people don’t take the European parliament very seriously, the election has some of the characteristics of a giant by-election: voters use it as an opportunity to express their frustrations with their own country’s government rather than basing their vote on continent-wide issues.

That makes it impossible to generalise about the outcome without looking at individual countries. Apportionment of seats is weighted slightly in favor of smaller countries, but even so the seven largest EU members — Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Spain, Poland and Romania — will return about 60% of the MPs, so what happens there will determine the broad shape of the result.

In the five years since the last European elections, two of the seven (Germany and Poland) have replaced social democrat with centre-right governments. France and the UK have retained their respective centre-right and social democrat governments, each with a change at the top — reasonably successful in France, less so in the UK.

Spain retains the same social democrat government, while Italy has changed from centre-right to centre-left and back again. Romania’s party system defies easy description, but the centre-right remains in power, although with a different coalition.

None of the incumbents are travelling particularly well, and with the centre-right having a larger share of the major governments than last time, they probably stand to lose ground — particularly since the most poorly-performing of the social democrat governments, in the UK, had an atrocious election in 2004 and can hardly fall much further.

But whatever happens, the European parliament has more work to do before its elections become a source of great excitement.