Britain goes to polls in fateful election centered on Brexit, anti-Semitism
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Britain goes to polls in fateful election centered on Brexit, anti-Semitism

Vote will determine immediate future of UK’s troubled departure from EU; Boris Johnson leads Jeremy Corbyn in polls, but vote seen as volatile

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with his dog Dilyn as he leaves from a polling station in central London on December 12, 2019, as Britain holds a general election. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with his dog Dilyn as he leaves from a polling station in central London on December 12, 2019, as Britain holds a general election. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP)

LONDON (AFP) — Britain went to the polls on Thursday to determine the immediate future of Brexit, in a vote described as the most important in a generation.

More than 4,000 polling venues across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, including a windmill, several pubs, a hair salon and a chip shop, opened their doors for a day of voting that ends at 10 p.m. (midnight in Israel).

All eyes will be on the winter weather, with forecasts of near-freezing temperatures, rain and even snow that could affect turnout in the first December election in nearly a century.

Up for grabs are all 650 seats in the British parliament, which has been deadlocked since the 2016 referendum on EU membership that saw a majority vote to leave.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took over from Theresa May in July after she was unable to get parliament to approve her EU divorce deal, is hoping to secure both a mandate and a majority.

Johnson’s Conservatives need just nine more seats for a majority, which would allow him to push through his own Brexit deal with Brussels and take Britain out of the bloc by the end of January.

Johnson said Thursday was a chance to end more than three years of political deadlock and uncertainty.

“Just imagine how wonderful it will be to settle down to a turkey dinner this Christmas with Brexit decided,” he said in a final message to voters.

Council workers put up signs in central London as polling stations open for a general election in London on December 12, 2019. (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

Looking to stop Johnson is the main opposition Labour party, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, whose prospective victory has raised alarm bells among the Jewish community amid accusations that he has allowed anti-Semitism to fester in the party under his stewardship.

Victory would make Corbyn, 70, the first Labour prime minister since Gordon Brown in 2010 and the oldest first-time premier since Viscount Palmerston in 1855.

Corbyn is proposing to renegotiate softer exit terms with Brussels within three months and put them to a new referendum, alongside an option to remain in the 27-member bloc, after a three-month campaign.

A franchise extension would enable millions of EU nationals in Britain to vote in the referendum.

Corbyn said Britain was at a crossroads and the election was “truly historic.”

Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn gestures with supporters and activists after delivering a speech during a general election campaign rally in East London on December 11, 2019, the final day of campaigning for the general election (Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

“Vote for hope. Vote for real change,” he said.

The election features 3,321 candidates — from 18-year-olds to octogenarians — in constituencies covering windswept Shetland off northeast Scotland, to the Isles of Scilly more than 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) away off Cornwall, in southwest England.

The first indication of the overall result will come in an exit poll at just as the vote ends. The first actual result is due from around an hour later. The remainder will trickle in overnight.

Johnson has hammered home his message to “Get Brexit Done” against a backdrop of voter fatigue at the election — the third in less than five years — and the tortuous Brexit process.

But the EU itself has indicated the chances of securing a comprehensive trade deal before a December 2020 deadline is unrealistic.

That would again raise the prospect of Britain facing a “no deal” scenario, plunging business and the British economy into fresh uncertainty.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has had to brush off claims of indecision about his neutral Brexit stance, and claims of anti-Semitism within Labour.

Questions have also been asked about the cost for his radical leftist program for massive public sector investment and renationalization of some key sectors.

He has positioned Labour as the only defender of the UK’s cherished state healthcare system that he alleges Johnson wants to sell off in a “toxic” post-Brexit trade deal with US President Donald Trump.

Pollsters YouGov last month predicted that Johnson’s Conservatives would have a comfortable 68-seat majority but on Tuesday indicated that projection had been cut to 28.

Brexit has turned traditional political allegiances on their head and shock results could be on the cards, with tactical voting expected along Leave/Remain, rather than party lines.

British opposition Liberal Democrats Party Leader Jo Swinson speaks as she joins activists for a final day election rally in Guildford, England, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019 during the General Election campaign tour. Britain goes to the polls on Dec. 12.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Labour’s so-called “Red Wall” in northern England — which mainly voted to leave the EU — is being watched closely for Conservative gains, as is north Wales, another traditional bastion of the left.

“There’s more volatility than there ever has been before,” said Chris Curtis, political research manager at YouGov, pointing to an increase in swing voters.

“At this stage, the most likely outcome is a Conservative majority,” he told AFP.

“However, a hung parliament is possible but also a much larger Conservative majority isn’t something that we could rule out.”

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