All eyes on London as Livingstone fights for mayoral post

All eyes will be on maverick London Mayor Ken Livingstone this week who is facing the first serious challenge to his controversial 8-year-rule of the British capital in local elections Thursday, the dpa reported.

The 62-year-old Labour mayor has been nicknamed "little Hitler" by his critics on account of his alleged "dictatorial" use of power over issues such as the introduction of the congestion charge and the abolition of the much-loved open-platform Routemaster buses.

But his supporters say the mayor has transformed the city's transport system and enhanced London's reputation for multi-ethnic diversity and its appeal to business investors.

In elections on May 1, Livingstone will be seeking a third term, that would extend his mayoral role into 2012 - the year London is hosting the Olympic Games.

But, for the first time since he was elected in 2000, and then again four years later, Livingstone is facing a serious challenge for the job from the Conservatives.

Boris Johnson, a journalist and Conservative member of parliament (MP), with a reputation for eccentricity, is in a neck-and-neck race with the veteran mayor.

With opinion polls predicting a knife-edge fight between the two men, whose colourful personalities are as different as their backgrounds and political platforms, the mayoral elections have assumed national importance.

Furthermore, the London poll coincides with local council elections in large parts of England and Wales Thursday.

A defeat for Livingstone in London would be interpreted as a serious blow to the ruling Labour Party of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, which is trailing behind the Conservatives by a record 18 percentage points, according to latest polls.

For the Conservatives, the takeover of London's City Hall would be the first electoral proof that the "modernized" Tory party led by David Cameron has reached voters beyond its traditionally rural support base.

Labour fears that defeat for Livingstone could add momentum to Cameron's push to unseat Brown at the next general election in Britain, due in 2009 or 2010.

Livingstone, who as "red Ken" was shunned by the reformed New Labour Party of Tony Blair, and for a while excluded for his left-wing views, returned to the Labour fold at the peak of his popularity in early 2004.

Since then, Labour leaders, from Blair to Brown have - albeit reluctantly - thrown their public weight behind Livingstone.

"I used not to like him, but he has done an excellent job," said Alistair Campbell, Blair's former right-hand man, confirming that both he and Blair had acted as advisers for the Livingstone campaign.

Meanwhile Johnson, a former editor of the Spectator magazine, is backed by the rightwing tabloid newspaper group Associated Newspapers, and by Rupert Murdoch's Sun.

"Jester Boris eyes Ken's crown with the help of some powerful friends," ran a headline in the Guardian.

The Liberals, Britain's third political party, have chosen Brian Paddick, an openly gay 49-year-old ex police chief as their candidate.

For Londoners, the choice between such strong personalities cannot be easy.

Opinion polls back the expectation that the election will tell a tale of two cities, with Livingstone strong in the central boroughs while Johnson's appeal is stronger in the "forgotten" outlying areas.

London, a culturally vibrant and ethnically diverse city, has changed greatly under Livingstone's rule, as green issues have come to the fore and drivers have reluctantly accepted the inner city congestion charge which is now being copied by other European cities.

Critics accuse Livingstone of having extended the unpopular charge zone against the voters' will and of having failed to improve the ailing Tube network, of which he is a regular user.

Meanwhile Johnson, a Johnson, a keen cyclist, has made much of Livingstone's admission that he does not know how to ride a bike.

There have also been allegations of corruption and "cronyism" against Livingstone's administration, culminating in criticism of an allegedly overblown travel budget and his close personal friendship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Residents of London's more affluent boroughs face a sharp hike of the daily congestion charge to 25 pounds (50 dollars) for 4x4 "gas guzzling" vehicles from October.

Apart from transport, youth crime, housing and immigration are among key election issues.

While Johnson has slipped up with a number of allegedly racist gaffes. Livingstone has put the promotion of multi-culturalism at the heart of his campaign.

A vote for Johnson would be a "step back in time," Livingstone's camp has been telling voters. But the Conservatives maintain that London is ready for change - and for a mayor who knows how to ride a bike.

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