Monday, 9 May 2016

London elects first Muslim mayor: Sadiq Khan

The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

LONDON • In a Europe struggling with a rise in Islamophobia, riven by debates about Syrian migrants and on edge over religious, ethnic and cultural disputes, London has elected its first Muslim mayor.

Mr Sadiq Khan - a Labour Party leader, a former human rights lawyer and a son of a bus driver from Pakistan - was declared the winner after a count that extended into yesterday. He will be the first Muslim to lead Britain's capital.

The victory also makes him one of the most prominent Muslim politicians in the West. In his acceptance speech, he said the election "was not without controversy", adding that he was "proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division". He said: "I hope we will never be offered such a stark choice again... Fear does not make us safer, it only makes us weaker and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city."

London is hardly representative of Britain: A quarter of its residents are foreign-born, and one-eighth are Muslim. And Mr Khan is not the first Muslim to hold prominent office in Europe: Rotterdam in the Netherlands has had a Muslim mayor since 2009, and Mr Sajid Javid is British Secretary of State for Business.

Nonetheless, Mr Khan, 45, won a striking victory - with 56.8 per cent of the vote versus 43.2 per cent for main rival Zac Goldsmith.

Britain has not had a large-scale terrorist attack since 2005, and its Muslim population, in contrast with France's, is considered well-integrated. But an estimated 800 people have left Britain to fight for or support the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Assaults on British Muslims were reported after the Paris terrorist attacks in November.

Mr Khan's campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues like housing and transportation costs. He drew strong support from labour unions and kept a distance from party leader Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist who has an ardent base among young voters but faces heavy resistance among fellow Labour lawmakers.

Mr Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, attacked Mr Khan's past advocacy for criminal defendants, including his opposition to the extradition of a man who was later convicted in the United States of supporting terrorism. He said Mr Khan had given "oxygen and cover" to extremists. When Prime Minister David Cameron repeated those assertions in Parliament, he was accused of racism.

Mr Khan defended his work as a human rights lawyer, and he has said he hopes Mr Donald Trump - the presumptive Republican presidential candidate who has called for barring Muslims from entering the United States - "loses badly".

Mr Khan's victory was also his party's biggest boost in elections on Thursday in which Labour further lost its grip on Scotland and clung to seats in England and Wales.

In Pakistan, his victory was greeted with celebration. News of the win featured on the front pages of all major Pakistani newspapers yesterday, while also causing a stir on social media.

"Congratulations @SadiqKhan 4 being elected mayor of London," tweeted Mr Bilawal Bhutto, leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party and son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

"British Pakistanis need (a) role model," he added.


Fairy-tale ending for London's new mayor
The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

LONDON • London's new mayor Sadiq Khan's journey to City Hall is like a modern fairy tale.

Born in London in 1970 to parents who had recently arrived from Pakistan, he was the fifth child out of seven brothers and one sister.

He grew up in public housing in Tooting, an ethnically mixed residential area in south London, and slept in a bunk bed until he was 24. His modest background plays well in a city that is proud of its diversity and loves a self-made success story.

Mr Khan, 45, regularly recalls how his father drove one of London's famous red buses, and his mother was a seamstress. One of his brothers is a mechanic.

He is a handy boxer, having learnt the sport to defend himself in the streets against those who hurled racist abuse at him, and two of his brothers are boxing coaches. He ran the London Marathon in 2014.

At school, he wanted to study science and become a dentist. But a teacher spotted his gift for verbal sparring and directed him towards law. He gained a law degree from the University of North London and started out as a trainee lawyer in 1994. He specialised in human rights.

Mr Khan, who joined the Labour Party at 15, became a local councillor for Tooting in 1994, and its Member of Parliament in 2005.

He still lives in the area with his lawyer wife Saadiya and their two teenage daughters.

Then prime minister Gordon Brown made him the communities minister in 2008 and he later served as transport minister, becoming the first Muslim minister to attend Cabinet meetings. In Parliament, he voted for gay marriage - which got him death threats.

His mayoral election campaign focused on providing affordable homes for Londoners and freezing transport fares.


UK elections: Labour hit hardest in day of drubbings
British politics in grip of acrimony as Scottish nationalists, Conservatives also left bruised
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Local elections in Britain are often dismissed as a sideshow, political confrontations between little- known people with nothing much at stake.

Not last week, however, for Britain's "Super Thursday" marathon electoral round decided not only the fate of 2,700 municipal officials but also the shape of the government in Scotland, and also picked the next mayor of London.

And with most of the ballots now counted, it's clear that all of the parties suffered a drubbing, with the opposition Labour the worst off.

The largest showdown and biggest electoral upsets were in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party (SNP), a separatist movement pledged to the province's eventual independence from the United Kingdom, appeared certain to secure its third consecutive win. It did, although the 4.2 million-strong Scottish electorate astonished opinion pollsters by depriving the SNP of its overall majority: the Scottish nationalists won only 63 out of 129 seats in Scotland's regional Parliament, far fewer than they anticipated.

And in a stinging rebuke to Labour's far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was assumed to be more appealing to Scotland's left-leaning electorate, the party captured only 24 seats, 13 fewer than in the outgoing Scottish legislature. This is Labour's worst electoral result since 1928.

And to add insult to injury, the Conservatives, who control the British government but who until recently were dismissed as irrelevant in Scotland, have now replaced Labour as the second-largest party in the province, capturing 31 seats.

That feat is almost entirely due to Ms Ruth Davidson, the feisty 37-year-old Scottish Conservative leader, an openly gay politician who, borrowing from her hobby of kick-boxing, ran a clever campaign and is now one of Britain's most popular politicians.

Ms Davidson claims to be "under no illusion" that she has converted Scotland into a Conservative- voting province. "The people have elected us to do a very specific job, and that is to hold the Scottish nationalists to account," she said after ballots were counted.

Still, the win could turn out to have profound and long-term implications, for if she consolidates the Conservatives' hold as the true opposition to the SNP, she may deprive Labour of any chance of returning to power at the national level, for Labour cannot form any British government without Scottish voters.

Labour also did badly in Wales' elections, and in England, where for the first time since the 1980s, it failed to increase its share of the vote while in opposition.

Labour's only consolation is the election of its candidate Sadiq Khan as the mayor of London. After one of the most bitterly fought elections in recent decades, Mr Khan, the son of a bus driver of Pakistani descent, gained the support of more than 1.1 million voters in London, trouncing Mr Zac Goldsmith, his Conservative opponent, the son of a billionaire of Jewish origins.

Both men vowed that race and religion wouldn't be part of their campaigns, and both failed to keep their promises. Mr Khan often played on his rags-to-riches personal story, and on the claim that Britain may be the only European nation where a Muslim can rise to prominence.

Meanwhile, Mr Goldsmith and British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Mr Khan of "sharing platforms" with "those holding extremist views", or with "sympathisers for terrorism".

In the event, Mr Khan triumphed by securing 44.2 per cent of the votes. Since only 14 per cent of London's electorate is Muslim, the result showed his appeal cut across both ethnic and religious lines.

The fact that the EU's biggest capital city will be governed by a Muslim is already touted by British diplomats and politicians as an example of their country's diversity and toleration. "Across and above politics, whatever your background, gender, race or religion, this is possible in the UK," read an enthusiastic Tweet from Ms Vicki Treadell, the British High Commissioner to Malaysia.

Perhaps, although reconciliation is not the preferred term in British politics this weekend. Mr Cameron has refused to withdraw his criticism of Mr Khan, suggesting that his ruling Conservatives remain determined to undermine the London mayor.

"We don't back away from the questions we raised during the campaign," a source close to the Prime Minister told the local media. Meanwhile, Labour MPs, aghast at the disastrous electoral performance of their leader, Mr Corbyn, are renewing their campaign to unseat him.

British politics have seldom been in such a bickering mood. And a far bigger challenge beckons next month when the country has to vote in a crucial referendum on whether it will remain in the EU.

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