British lawmaker loses seat over election race claims

5th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

A British court ruled Friday that an opposition lawmaker must forfeit his parliamentary seat after stirring up racial tensions during his campaign for re-election, paving the way for a new vote.

Former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas is barred from entering the election re-run, opening the door for the coalition government's junior partner, the Liberal Democrats, to strengthen their position in parliament.

In May's general election, Woolas won his Oldham East and Saddleworth seat in northwest England by just 103 votes from Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkins, who then mounted a legal challenge over the Labour candidate's behaviour.

The specially convened election court ruled Friday that during the campaign Woolas had attacked Watkins' conduct and character with statements implying that he courted Muslim extremists.

It is the first time a general election result has been overturned by legal challenge since 1911.

During the court hearing, Watkins accused Woolas's campaign team of trying to "make the white folk angry" by publishing accusations of foreign donations and Muslim extremist sympathies in two mock-up newspapers and a pamphlet.

Woolas, a former member of ex-prime minister Gordon Brown's government, will not be allowed to serve in the House of Commons for three years. However, he has said he will fight the ruling.

Racial tensions in the town of Oldham -- whose population is 11 percent Muslim -- exploded in 2001 with a bout of serious rioting and relations have been strained since.

The far-right British National Party scored 5.7 percent of the vote at the May 6 election, 3.6 percent above the national average, while Kashif Ali, the candidate for the Conservative Party, polled 2,310 votes fewer than Woolas.

Although the new by-election offers an opportunity for the Lib Dems to claim a seat, recent opinion polls suggest their popularity has taken a major hit since joining up with the centre-right Conservatives following May's election.

© 2010 AFP

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