London (AFP) – London was on track to become the first EU capital with a Muslim mayor as voters went to the polls Thursday after a bitter campaign between Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour party.
Labour lawmaker Sadiq Khan, a former government minister and son of a bus driver from Pakistan, is tipped to beat Conservative multimillionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith in the race to run the British capital.
Both men voted shortly after polls opened at 7:00am (0600 GMT): Khan in his multi-ethnic constituency of Tooting in south London, and Goldsmith in his leafy, affluent southwestern suburb of Richmond.
The campaign to replace Conservative Boris Johnson in City Hall has been ugly, with Khan forced to deny support for Islamic extremists and Goldsmith rejecting claims of playing on voters’ religious prejudices.
But many Londoners are more concerned about issues such as the high cost of housing and transport.
“Muslim or non-Muslim, it doesn’t … matter for the community,” said 57-year-old Koyruz Zoman, a Muslim cook from Whitechapel in the ethnically diverse East End.
“Whoever comes in, we want what they’ve promised.”
The vote was taking place on the same day as regional polls in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which are expected to leave the balance of power in those regional devolved administrations broadly unchanged.
The elections are a key test for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran socialist elected in September.
The party has been convulsed by a row over anti-Semitism that has resulted in the suspension of a Labour MP, a former Labour London mayor and several activists.
A poor showing in the polls, which include 124 local authorities across England, would embolden Corbyn’s critics on the moderate wing of the party.
Cameron will also be hoping for a good result, however, as he grapples with deep splits in his party ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
– Khan v Goldsmith –
Twelve candidates are standing for mayor of London but final pre-election polls pointed to a straight fight between Khan and Goldsmith, with the former between 12 and 14 points ahead.
However, experts caution that turnout will be key.
Both men come from different backgrounds. Khan, 45, grew up in social housing and worked as a human rights lawyer before entering politics, while Goldsmith, 41, is the son of the late tycoon financier James Goldsmith.
Khan has dismissed attempts to link him with Islamic extremists as “desperate stuff”, but Cameron repeated the claims in angry clashes with Corbyn in parliament on Wednesday.
“It’s been the nastiest campaign,” said Leeanne Collaco, a 28-year-old human resources manager from Whitechapel.
She said religion was not as important as Khan’s modest background, saying: “His family have known struggles. He probably would fight harder for a fairer London.”
London’s Evening Standard newspaper endorsed Goldsmith on Wednesday, as he spent the last day of campaigning on a 24-hour tour of the city.
“Of the two strong candidates, he has more compelling ideas on tackling pollution and congestion,” the paper said.
– Scottish nationalism –
In the Scottish Parliament, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s pro-independence party is looking to tighten its hold on power as it seeks to build support for a second vote on leaving the UK following a failed referendum on the issue in 2014.
If Britain as a whole votes to leave the European Union but Scotland votes to stay in, Sturgeon says that would be a pretext for her Scottish National Party to demand another independence referendum.
In Wales, polls put Labour on course to retain their dominance in the Welsh Assembly, with the Conservatives and nationalists Plaid Cymru vying for second place.
In Northern Ireland, the delicate balance in the power-sharing executive set up after decades of sectarian violence also looks set to continue.