London (CNSNews.com) – As a tumultuous, often sharp-edged campaign comes to a close, polls predict that residents of the British capital will elect human-rights lawyer Sadiq Khan as their first Muslim mayor on Thursday.
Khan, a member of the opposition Labor Party who has served in parliament since 2005, has been projected in various polls over the last week to beat his main challenger, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, by at least nine percentage points.
In contrast to Khan, a 45-year-old London-born son of working-class immigrants from Pakistan, the 41-year-old Goldsmith is the London-born son of a renowned billionaire financier, Sir James Goldsmith. He spent much of his life before entering parliament in 2010 as an environmental activist.
Issues such as the high cost of housing and air pollution have featured prominently in the campaign, but Khan has also been attacked by Goldsmith and other high-ranking Conservatives for sharing public platforms in the past with Islamic extremists.
Last month Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons he was “concerned” about Khan and questioned his judgment.
In response, Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the prime minister of “smearing” Khan. Other critics have charged that Cameron is engaging in “dog whistle politics” in an effort to bring out voters in support of Goldsmith.
Khan has said that he has always condemned extremism but that as a former chairman of Liberty, a prominent civil-liberties group in Britain, he has had to deal with “some pretty unsavory characters.”
While being accused of embracing Islamic radicals, he told the BBC last February that radicals have threatened him in the past for liberal positions he has taken.
“I was the guy who had a fatwa against him because I voted for same-sex marriage,” he said.
According to news reports in 2013, an imam in the city of Bradford issued a fatwa declaring Khan to be an “apostate” from Islam who must “repent before Allah,” after he voted in favor of a bill approving same-sex marriage that passed in the House of Commons by a 400-175 vote.
More controversy erupted this week for the Labor candidate when a video surfaced of a 2009 Iranian television interview, in which he used an ethnic slur in explaining that he had to talk to all groups as a then minister in the Labor government.
“You can’t just pick and choose who you speak to,” he said. “You can’t just speak to, uh, Uncle Toms.”
The Muslim Association of Britain said in a recent statement it was “bizarre and disappointing” that the focus of the campaign had shifted from the future of London onto Islam.
Association president Omer El-Hamdoon said Tuesday that it was important that Muslims get out and vote, but that his group was not endorsing anyone.
According to 2011 census figures, the population of London was 8.2 million, of whom one in three had been born outside Britain. About 42 percent were non-white and 12.2 percent identified themselves as Muslim.
Outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is also a Conservative MP, has served two terms as mayor. Analysts have credited his wins to capturing the outer ring of less ethnically-diverse neighborhoods around the city.
Corbyn was elected leader of the Labor Party last year after his party’s defeat in a general election but due to his left-leaning views, he has faced constant criticism in the media, as well as sniping from his own ranks.
Mark Garnett, an expert on British Politics at Lancaster University, said Tuesday that a win by Khan in London would do little to reinforce Corbyn since the capital is seen as a Labor stronghold anyway, and a good result for the party would not necessarily boost its leader.
In other elections on Thursday, Labor is projected to lose city council seats across England and was in danger of slipping into third place in the Scottish Parliament, which it once dominated.
Corbyn has not been helped by the fact that Ken Livingston, a former mayor of London and staunch ally of the party leader, is now embroiled in a heated row over anti-Semitic remarks.
“You can see it as kind of a perfect storm for Corbyn as leader of the Labor Party,” Garnett said.