London’s new Muslim mayor hails ‘unity over division’

London – London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan thanked voters for choosing “unity over division” as he was elected Saturday, becoming the first Muslim leader of a major Western capital.

In a second round run-off, the son of Pakistani immigrants beat Conservative multimillionaire Zac Goldsmith with 57 percent, or 1.3 million votes, giving him the largest personal mandate of any British politician.

Khan swept to victory despite repeated accusations from his rivals, including Prime Minister David Cameron, that he sympathised with Islamic extremists — which he denies.

“This election was not without controversy and I am so proud that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division,” the 45-year-old said in his acceptance speech, to cheers from supporters.

“I hope that we will never be offered such a stark choice again. Fear doesn’t make us safer, it only makes us weaker, and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city.”

As he spoke, the mayoral candidate for the far-right Britain First party, Paul Golding, turned his back.

The victory offered some cheer for Labour after setbacks elsewhere following regional elections across Britain on Thursday, as a row over anti-Semitism in the party that has damaged leader Jeremy Corbyn continued to rage.

“Congratulations Sadiq Khan. Can’t wait to work with you to create a London that is fair for all!” Corbyn tweeted.

Khan replaces the charismatic Boris Johnson and ends the Conservatives’ eight-year hold on the London mayoralty, a position that has responsibility for transport, housing, policing and promoting economic development.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was among the first to tweet his congratulations to “fellow affordable housing advocate, @SadiqKhan. Look forward to working together!”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo added on Twitter that Khan’s “humanity, progressivism will benefit Londoners.”

The victory was also hailed in Tooting, a multi-ethnic area of south London where Khan lives and where he grew up in social housing, before becoming first a human rights lawyer and then a member of parliament.

“Sadiq Khan will have a unifying factor because he is Muslim, an immigrant, he is from (the) working class, so he understands the working class people and he can associate with them,” said Shahzad Saddiqui, a local businessman.

– Labour losses elsewhere –

Labour fared less well in other elections on Britain’s “Super Thursday”, in which 45 million Britons were eligible to vote.

The party came third in elections for the devolved government in Scotland, a one-time stronghold, behind the Conservatives, in a vote won by the incumbent pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).

Labour retained power in the Welsh assembly, although it lost one seat, and with 118 of 124 results declared, maintained all but one of its local councils in England.

Corbyn, a veteran socialist who has faced opposition from centrists in his party since being elected last year, said his party had “hung on” and surpassed expectations.

But critics said Labour should have made more gains given the splits in the Conservative government ahead of the EU referendum on June 23, and its unpopular spending cuts.

Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at Kent University, said Labour was in “serious trouble”.

“The Labour party is now third in Scotland for the first time since 1910 and it has failed to make a serious impression in southern England,” he said.

– ‘Persuade not divide’ –

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will lead the separatist party into its third successive government in Edinburgh, although the party lost its outright majority.

She announced she would lead a minority administration, and played down talk of a fresh independence referendum to follow the unsuccessful one in 2014.

“The SNP will always make our case with passion, with patience and with respect but our aim is to persuade not to divide,” Sturgeon said.

The other big story in Scotland was the success of the Scottish Conservatives, who came second with 31 seats.

The party has been deeply unpopular in Scotland since the 1980s premiership of Margaret Thatcher but its fortunes have turned around under current Scottish leader Ruth Davidson.

Davidson is a charismatic and openly gay 37-year-old whose cheery, no-nonsense style and proficient use of social media has fuelled her party’s success.

Elsewhere, the anti-European, anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) secured its first seat in the Welsh assembly and two seats in the London assembly.

At the Lahore Karahi restaurant in south London, customers and staff celebrated Friday as it became clear the capital was to have its first Muslim mayor, shouting out in Urdu, “Sadiq Khan Zinda Baad!” (Sadiq Khan well done!)

A favourite haunt of the Khan family, the restaurant in the south London district of Tooting — where the 45-year-old son of a Pakistani immigrant bus driver is the local MP — buzzed with excitement.

“We are happy now but he has to fulfil the promises he made,” said waiter Shehzad Azhar, 30. “The housing crisis and the transportation come first.”

“He will do good things,” added fellow employee Malik Ahmed, 32.

Khan’s victory came after a straight fight with his conservative opponent, ecologist Zac Goldsmith, son of the late tycoon financier James Goldsmith and a scion of one of Britain’s wealthiest families

The lack of affordable housing and the overcrowded transport system were key concerns for many Londoners, but Khan’s faith also became an issue in an unusually negative campaign, with Goldsmith seeking to establish links between Khan and Muslim extremists.

Outside Khan’s mosque, 50-year-old Asim said: “He is above the polemics. He ran a very clean campaign, very honest, and that’s what Londoners liked.”

Khan, a former human rights lawyer and Labour government minister, was attacked by both Goldsmith and Prime Minister David Cameron for allegedly voicing support for Muslim extremists in past.

Tooting-born Khan. who grew up in public housing in south London, dismissed the claims as “desperate”, insisting he did not have extremist views.

Some Conservatives voiced concern that the attacks on him could hurt Muslim community relations.

Businessman Shahzad Saddiqui said Khan’s background would help him to bring Londoners together.

“Sadiq Khan will have a unifying factor because he is Muslim, an immigrant, he is from the working class, so he understands the working-class people and he can associate with them,” he said.

“He knows also how the Muslim community is constantly bashed in the media and he will address that.”

– ‘From our culture’ –

The latest census showed that 12.4 percent of Londoners are Muslim, 48.4 percent Christian, 1.8 percent Jewish and 20.7 percent have no faith.

The Muslim community is hugely varied, covering multiple ethnic and social backgrounds as well as a variety of moderate and traditionalist views.

In the East End, which has a large Muslim minority, voters said they had cast their ballots for Khan because of his policies rather than his religion.

Fahim Ahmed, a 35-year-old stallholder of Bangladeshi origin selling Islamic dresses at Whitechapel street market, said he was voting for the centre-left Labour party as much as for the individual.

But he welcomed the election of a candidate whose parents emigrated from Pakistan to Britain in the 1960s, saying: “He’s from our culture.”

At a nearby stall, Sabiha Choudhary was shopping for vegetables dressed in a black robe and green headscarf.

“It will not help only the Muslims, it will make a difference for all communities,” she said. “Things will be better for people with not much money like us.” AFP