Polls open for British election, Iraq war could steal votes for Blair

Voters cast their ballots Thursday in Britain's national election, a heated race where Prime Minister Tony Blair's fight for a third term could be hampered by public anger over the Iraq war.

Although Blair's Labour Party is expected to win the election, anti-war sentiment could keep him from securing the landslide victories he won in 1997 and 2001.

Few expect Blair's main rival, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard to become prime minister, but the Tories could pare back the number of seats Labour holds in the House of Commons. Blair's party had a huge 161-seat majority in the outgoing legislature; the new house will have 646 members.

If Labour's majority shrinks significantly, it could badly damage Blair, who would wield less power than in his first two terms and lose standing within his party.

"Labour haven't lived up to expectations and I don't like the Tory attitude," said Sue Kenworthy, a housewife who cast her ballot early Thursday in the village hall at Hatfield Broad Oak, a small rural community some 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of London.

"Politicians lie all the time, but I feel the Liberal Democrats are more honest," she added, referring to the second biggest opposition party. Her village of 1,000 people sits in a district expected to remain in Conservative hands.

Bob Merrion, a former Conservative local council member, was among some 60 voters who cast their ballots in the first 90 minutes of polling in Hatfield Broad Oak.

"I don't think the campaign has been brilliant. It's been a bit on the personal side and people don't actually like that," Merrion said. "My own view is that the polls are probably wrong and that the Tories will do much better than expected."

Blair has said that if Labour wins he would serve a full third term but not run for a fourth. Observers have speculated, however, that he could hand power to his Treasury Chief Gordon Brown midterm if he is badly weakened in the election.

Turnout in the race could be crucial. The last general election in 2001 saw a turnout of 59 percent _ the lowest since troops returned in 1918 at the end of World War I.

This year's brief but hard-hitting campaign has exposed the depth of Britons' anger at the prime minister, whose formidable political skills once charmed voters who saw him as a fresh face of change after 18 years of Tory government in the 1980s and '90s.

Blair's decision to commit the country to war in Iraq and his centrist stance on domestic issues _ including plans to partly privatize some public services _ have infuriated many within his own party.

But he has benefited from the Conservatives' even greater unpopularity, and a perception that the opposition is less capable of handling the economy.

"It's a Labour-despite-everything victory," predicted Philip Cowley, a political analyst at Nottingham University.

Even more damaging for Blair, Cowley said, "This time they will win despite him."

If Labour lawmakers see it that way too, it could mean a quicker exit from power than Blair would like, even if the party wins Thursday's vote. Brown is eager to succeed him as prime minister and could press for a midterm handover if Blair is seen as responsible for a big loss.

"If you value it, vote for it," a Labour slogan said.

Blair has warned anti-war Labour stalwarts against casting a protest vote for the Liberal Democrats, saying that could pave the way for a Tory victory.

Howard headed a focused Tory campaign, pounding on just a few issues _ tightening immigration, cutting taxes, cleaning up hospitals. Although Howard supported the Iraq war, he attacked Blair, accusing the prime minister of lying about intelligence and the legality of the invasion and lacking a plan to win the peace.

Polling stations also opened up Thursday in Northern Ireland where parties are fighting for 18 seats in the Westminster parliament. The key question is which local party chieftains will command the province's fragile peace process: moderates or hard-liners.

BETH GARDINER, Associated Press Writer

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