By the British seaside, UKIP seeks second wind
Britain's anti-EU UK Independence Party is hoping for a major breakthrough in May's general election, but will have to overcome an electoral system stacked against small parties and its own history of racist gaffes.
The battle came to Margate, a faded seaside resort in southeast England which is hosting its spring conference, on Friday. Here, beer-loving leader Nigel Farage's policies of withdrawing from the EU, toughening immigration controls and restoring Britain to the good old days resonate.
After topping the polls in Britain's vote for the European Parliament in 2014, a triumphant year continued with the party's first two lawmakers in parliament.
Both were already MPs, but defected from Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and were re-elected under the yellow and purple banner of UKIP in by-elections.
At the height of "UKIP-mania" the party approached 20 percent support in opinion polls, with some predicting the party would scoop as many as 100 seats in 2015.
But with less than three months to go until the May 7 general election, the fervour has cooled.
While UKIP remains the third force in the country after the Conservatives and the left-leaning opposition Labour party, its support has fallen below 15 percent.
Experts say the party will struggle to win more than a handful of seats in the face of an electoral system under which national percentage support counts for nothing unless a party wins individual constituencies outright.
University of Nottingham UKIP expert Matthew Goodwin estimated the party will win six seats while the University of Manchester's Rob Ford put it at "five to 10". Poll aggregator electionforecast sees the party taking between zero and three.
With the main parties too close to call, UKIP hopes it can win enough seats to prop up a minority Conservative government and secure a referendum on leaving the European Union.
Farage was on buoyant form at the conference, entering to loud applause and a soundtrack of "I'm A Believer".
"The experts tell us four or five seats but let me tell you, we are serious challengers to win four or five seats in this county alone," he told the crowd of activists for the self-styled "People's Army".
Margate is in the county of Kent, a key target area for UKIP which includes one of the seats the party already holds.
Farage himself is standing in the constituency next door to Margate, South Thanet, and is tipped to win.
- Race controversies -
Leeds University politics professor Jocelyn Evans told AFP that UKIP would have a big impact in the election by sapping votes from other parties in a tight race, but may only take a handful of seats.
"The electoral system absolutely works against them," Evans said.
UKIP, which was founded in 1993 but only emerged as a significant force in the last three years, lacks regional support strongholds and a strong organisational base.
And of course, Evans added, "racist remarks don't help".
Alongside a sex scandal that broke late last year, UKIP has been dogged by remarks by its members, including a councillor who was suspended after blaming heavy floods across Britain in 2014 on the government's decision to legalise gay marriage.
UKIP European Parliament member Janice Atkinson later called a party member originally from Thailand a "ting tong from somewhere".
Just last week, councillor Rozanne Duncan was expelled after saying in a BBC documentary "the only people I do have problems with are negroes... I really do have a problem with people with negroid features".
Sometimes the party does not help itself. In November, a constituency party Twitter account rebuked the BBC for holding an opinion poll on Farage outside what it described as a "mosque in London".
The author of the tweet had misidentified the building -- it was in fact Westminster Cathedral.
© 2015 AFP