Sun, Apr 24, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Ethnic divisions factor into UK poll

IDENTITY POLITICS Campaigning in a multi-ethnic district of central London inflamed religious political passions, spawning street fighting and intimidation

AFP , London

A mottled grid of public housing blocks crushed up against the eastern edge of central London, Bethnal Green and Bow has its own war-zones and battles to fight.

But it is Iraq that has become the main theme of an election duel under way in the suburb.

The traditionally humble district, for centuries the refuge of immigrants, and now dubbed "Banglatown" because of the large Bangladeshi community, is the campaign stomping ground for Oona King, the Labour incumbent who supported the war, and her anti-war rival George Galloway.

No race in Britain -- out of 646 seats up for grabs on May 5 -- has been as driven by the fury among many of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims over Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to wage war alongside the US.

None has been as heated, either, with the two main candidates engaged in a verbal slugging match, and both subjected to verbal or physical attacks by political rivals and Islamic radicals.

King, who is half-Jewish and half-black, won her seat in 1997 at only 30 years of age, and held it in 2001 by 10,000 votes over the Conservative candidate, Bangladesh-born Shahagir Faruk, who is running again this year.

But 50-year-old Galloway, who was thrown out of the Labour Party for his criticism of the Iraq War, has abandoned his parliament seat in Glasgow, Scotland to fight as a Respect Party candidate for King's, positioning himself as a left-wing champion of British Muslims and the underclass.

"Salaam alekum," he greeted a boisterous, mostly South Asian crowd in the last public debate to bring King and Galloway face-to-face, along with Faruk and Liberal Democratic candidate Syed Nurul Islam Dulu, in an east London hall.

"If you make war against Muslims abroad, you are going to end up making war against Muslims at home!" he declared, drawing cheers from the packed house on Wednesday.

King said nothing about the war, but her anti-poverty pledges and insistence that she opposed her government's controversial anti-terrorism legislation met with some applause and much booing -- nothing like the rousing support for the vocal Galloway.

Aziz Chaudhury, a 27-year-old youth worker in the tough Tower Hamlets area, said he was a card-carrying Labour member but would vote for Galloway as a "protest vote against Tony Blair -- a slap on his face."

Social worker Mostak Ahmed, 30, dubbed her a "warmonger."

"She voted for the war, and when we complained she told us, `If you don't like it, then take me out at the next election.' And that's exactly what we're doing," Ahmed said.

After putting locals through two weeks of what one voter described as intense "mud-slinging," the candidates declared they would put aside the vitriol.

The intention is to lower tensions in the multi-ethnic community, where unemployment, crime and disaffection are high, even after a recent influx of middle class professionals attracted by the streets of Victorian homes dotted among the public housing blocks.

Previously King had mocked Galloway's election pledges, saying "he couldn't deliver a pizza," and said the politician, who had frequent contact with the former Iraqi regime, had "groveled" at the feet of Saddam Hussein.

The MP also accused Respect activists of spreading word among the 40 percent Muslim district that she was Jewish to hurt her chances. Respect has vehemently denied this.

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