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Britain Gears Up for Elections - 2003-04-25


In Britain, May 1, elections will be held to fill more than 10,000 seats on local councils and regional assemblies. But political scientists predict the military victory in Iraq will not translate into a surge of support for Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party.

Mr. Blair is enjoying what some analysts call a "Baghdad bounce," after taking Britain to war in Iraq, despite strong opposition by a large percentage of the public.

On the world stage, Mr. Blair is basking in the limelight. He has even been nominated for the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. International Relations Professor Christopher Hill, of the London School of Economics, outlines Mr. Blair's triumph.

"Victory has been achieved over the Iraqi armed services, and the regime has been removed," professor Hill said. " Britain has clearly ended up on the winning side, unlike France or Germany. Its position at the U.N. Security Council is strengthened, not put into doubt. And one can look forward, at one level, to a period of consolidation. Indeed, if one takes a very optimistic view, maybe, finally, the logjam in the Middle East, not just in the "roadmap" of the Israel-Palestine problem, will be unblocked, but that the whole balance of forces in the Middle East will have changed."

It has been a remarkable turnaround for the British leader.

Poll data show the popularity of Mr. Blair hit a six-year low of 38 percent just before the war started on March 20. With victory in hand, by late April, support for the prime minister had gone up to 42 percent. That is just shy of where it stood when Mr. Blair led his Labor Party to an overwhelming majority in Parliament in the 2001 general election.

In the run-up to the war, some of the most bitter criticism of Mr. Blair's Iraq policy came from within the Labor Party itself. About one-third of the Labor members of Parliament voted against going to war. Adding to the pressure, a million anti-war protesters marched through London in mid-February.

The prime minister knew he was taking a gamble. He even warned his children that he might lose his premiership.

But British public opinion has proven fickle. A pre-war poll found that fewer than 10 percent would approve a war without United Nations endorsement. Now, more than 60 percent say the war was justified.

Mr. Blair will put his newfound popularity to a test on May 1, when voters elect town councils across most of England, and local assemblies in Scotland and Wales.

But political scientists say the prime minister should not expect battlefield victory to translate into votes. Tony Travers is a researcher at the London School of Economics.

"As far as local elections are concerned, although they are seen potentially as a UK- [United Kingdom] wide opinion poll, local environmental issues, crime, school quality, roads are the key drivers of local elections," Mr. Travers explained. " I would personally be amazed, apart from some Labor voters not voting, if Iraq played a particularly wide role in the local elections."

A low turnout is expected. Typically, fewer than one-in-three British voters bother to cast a ballot in town council elections. And Labor Party officials say many rank-and-file workers, still angry about the war, are not signing up to help get out the vote. Mr. Travers says the ruling party usually loses seats in an off-year election. His only question is how many seats will Labor lose this time.

"You'll expect Labor to lose seats in these elections," Mr. Travers said. " Even if they are doing quite well, they will lose seats. If they only lost 150, they would really be doing very well. If they lose more than 500, it's a bad night for Mr. Blair."

Political observers also will be monitoring the performance of the small right-wing British National Party, which campaigns on an anti-immigrant platform. Its manifesto accuses the Blair government of "dumping" asylum seekers on British communities.

A recent poll showed that one-quarter of the voters ranked immigration and race relations as key issues ahead of these elections.