Britain awaits results of 'Super Thursday' votes

London (AFP) –


Counting was underway Friday in regional elections across Britain seen as a key test for the leader of the opposition Labour party Jeremy Corbyn, as London looked set to have its first Muslim mayor.

Some counts are expected to stretch into the weekend as 45 million eligible voters were asked to cast their ballots in contests across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Initial results in local elections were expected to emerge early Friday, while the outcome of the vote for a new mayor of London to replace Conservative Boris Johnson was expected later.

Labour lawmaker Sadiq Khan, a former government minister and son of a bus driver from Pakistan, is tipped to beat Conservative multimillionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith in the race to run the British capital.

In Scotland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party is hoping to increase its hold and gain a mandate to push for a second referendum on seceding from the United Kingdom after a first attempt was defeated in 2014.

The voting day dubbed "Super Thursday" came after a bitter few weeks of political sniping between the Conservative party of Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour.

Cameron declared the left-leaning party had a problem with anti-Semitism after a series of members were suspended for making controversial remarks.

Labour's result be seen as a verdict on Corbyn's leadership and a poor showing in the polls, which include 124 local authorities across England, would embolden Corbyn's critics on the moderate wing of the party.

Cameron will also be hoping for a good result as he grapples with deep splits in his party ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Retired head teacher Mary White, 66, said that for her the biggest issues were "housing and transport".

"I don't think that any of the candidates have a magic solution so it's incredibly difficult to chose between them," White said as she voted in London.

- Divisive campaign -

The mayoral campaign has been ugly, with Khan forced to deny support for Islamic extremists and Goldsmith rejecting claims of playing on voters' religious prejudices.

But many Londoners were more concerned with concrete issues such as health and wages.

"Muslim or non-Muslim, it doesn't... matter for the community," said 57-year-old Koyruz Zoman, a Muslim cook from Whitechapel in the ethnically diverse East End.

"Whoever comes in, we want what they've promised."

Twelve candidates are standing for mayor of London but polls point to a straight fight between Khan and Goldsmith, with the former between 12 and 14 points ahead.

Opinion polls before the vote indicated that Khan could be set to win, and become the first Muslim mayor of an EU capital.

But experts have cautioned that turnout will be key.

The two men come from very different backgrounds. Khan, 45, grew up in social housing and worked as a human rights lawyer before entering politics, while Goldsmith, 41, is the son of the late tycoon financier James Goldsmith.

Khan has dismissed attempts to link him with Islamic extremists as "desperate stuff", but Cameron repeated the claims in angry clashes with Corbyn in parliament on Wednesday.

Cameron said Khan had shown a "pattern of behaviour" in appearing publicly alongside people such as Sajeel Shahid, "the man who trained the ringleader of the 7/7 attacks (in London)."

- Scottish split -

In Scotland, the pro-independence Scottish National Party was hoping to increase its hold and gain a mandate to move towards a second referendum on seceding from the rest of the United Kingdom after a failed attempt in 2014.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that the referendum on Britain's EU membership in June could be a trigger for her SNP party to demand another independence vote -- if Britain as a whole votes to leave the EU but Scotland votes to stay in.

In Wales, polls put Labour on course to retain its dominance in the Welsh Assembly, with the Conservatives and nationalists Plaid Cymru vying for second place.

In Northern Ireland, the delicate balance in the power-sharing executive set up after decades of sectarian violence also looks set to continue.