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British Elections


According to a London Sunday Times newspaper poll published this week, most British voters believe that Prime Minister Tony Blair lied about the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify British participation in the Iraq war two years ago. No such weapons were ever found.

Mr. Blair says his government never fabricated evidence or exaggerated the threat from Iraq to win support for the war. He also insists that sending troops to Iraq was the right thing to do.

Mr. Blair says, "I know that there is a disagreement over Iraq. That disagreement we will never resolve. But I also know that it's right to look to the future now. We have a democratic government in Iraq. That country is building a different kind of future for itself and we should stick with it and help them do it."

But Michael Howard, the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party, hopes voters' doubts about Mr. Blair translate into a change of government in Thursday's general election. According to Mr. Howard, "You have a situation in which on the one thing on which Mr. Blair has taken a stand in the last eight years -- going to war -- he couldn't even tell the truth about that. So yes, of course, character is an issue in this election. Trust is an issue in this election, and so it should be."

However, recent public opinion polls show Mr. Blair's center-left Labor Party holding a three- to eight-percentage point lead over the Conservatives and an even larger advantage over the centrist Liberal-Democrats. Analysts say this will likely translate into a large parliamentary majority for Mr. Blair who has been in office since 1997 and is now seeking an unprecedented third term for Labor.

Political scientist Vincent Bogdanor of Oxford University says Labor is leading in the polls, in part, because the Iraq war -- which most Britons opposed -- is not a major issue in the campaign. Professor Bogdanor notes, "The Iraq issue is not playing on the doorsteps in Britain at all. It's an issue of great concern to what you might call political "obsessives" -- to the media, perhaps to people like myself who comment on these matters. But to the average voter, it's something that happened in the past. It's gone and done with and it's not a crucial issue for them."

Most political analysts say Conservative Party attacks on Mr. Blair's trustworthiness are not credible because Mr. Howard himself supported the British decision to take part in the Iraq war two years ago.

Vincent Bogdanor of Oxford University says Labor is in a strong position on economic issues. He notes that Labor under Mr. Blair comes across as a moderate party, dedicated to generous and competent public service programs. At the same time, Professor Bogdanor says Labor has managed Britain's economy well enough over the past eight years to emerge in the public eye as the party with a reputation for economic competence -- a distinction that used to belong to the Conservatives.

Professor Bogdanor says, "People are frightened that if the Conservatives get back, they will endanger the economy and they will cut public expenditures, which will damage the health service and so the improvements that people have noticed will be undermined."

Human rights groups say the domestic issues that dominate the campaign are leaving very little room for discussion of civil liberties and of Britain's anti-terrorism legislation, passed by Parliament in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

Neil Durkin works for the London-based human rights group Amnesty International. Mr. Durkin says, "Political conversation is really centered and locked into debates about health, education and the economy. Immigration and asylum, another human rights issue, to some degree, is also figuring in. But I'm afraid to say, terrorism legislation and civil liberties are not. I think it's up to human rights organizations like Amnesty [International] to get it back on the agenda after the election."

As Thursday's elections near, most analysts expect voters to return Mr. Blair to office for a third term. If that happens, many analysts say Mr. Blair may decide that 10 years in power is enough and resign after two or three years to make way for a successor -- most likely his Finance Minister, Gordon Brown.

This report was broadcast on the VOA Focus Program. To see more Focus stories click here.