Ballot boxes open across the UK on Thursday for local and regional elections that could prove historic in Northern Ireland and further increase pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The contest for the decentralized assembly in Belfast could see the victory of a pro-Irish nationalist party for the first time in the troubled history of the British province.
The results, expected on Friday, could have huge constitutional implications for the future of the four-nation UK, with expected Sinn Fein winners pledged to vote in the province on reunification with Ireland.
Seats open at 0600 GMT for councils in Scotland, Wales and much of England, with Johnson facing a potentially crucial mid-term popularity test.
Poor results could rekindle the seething discontent within its ruling conservatives over its leadership after a series of recent scandals.
Johnson, 57, won a landslide victory in the 2019 general election by vowing to take Britain out of the European Union and reverse rampant regional inequality.
Despite fulfilling his Brexit promise, the pandemic has largely stalled his internal plans.
But his position was jeopardized due to anger over revelations of block-breaking parties at his Downing Street office and a cost-of-living crisis.
The heavy losses could revive demands among conservative MPs to ignite internal competition to oust Johnson from office as party leader and power.
Polls should also indicate whether the main opposition Labor Party poses a serious threat, as it seeks to make its way across England despite defending numerous gains in the latest local elections in 2018.
Labor is bidding to overtake the second-placed Conservatives in Scotland, behind the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), and remain the largest party in Wales, where 16- to 17-year-olds can vote for the first time .
The competition for northern IrelandThe power-sharing assembly will grab attention, after numerous polls put Sinn Fein ahead.
A University of Liverpool poll reported Tuesday that it remained in line with the goal of winning comfortably with over a quarter of the votes.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Inter-Community Alliance Party were in second place.
Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at the University of Ulster, said there is a sense that the elections “really matter.”
“It will be a sea change if a nationalist becomes prime minister,” he told AFP.
Sinn Fein – the former political wing of the IRA – toned down its calls for Irish unity during the campaign, saying there is “no set” date for a sovereignty survey, focusing instead on raising the cost of living. and on other local issues.
Party Vice President Michelle O’Neill insisted that voters “look to the future” with pragmatism rather than the dogmatism that has long been the hallmark of Northern Irish politics.
“They look a lot to those of us who can work together versus those who don’t want to work together,” he said.
But its DUP rivals have tried to keep the spotlight on possible Irish reunification in hopes of bolstering their weak fortunes.
In February, its prime minister withdrew from the power-sharing government to protest the post-Brexit trade deals, causing it to collapse.
In a final election debate among the five largest parties, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated that the party will not form a new executive unless London tears off trade terms, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Although many unionist voters share a dislike for the DUP, the party is also blamed.
On Belfast’s staunch unionist Shankill Road, gift shop owner Alaine Allen has stopped selling items for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee to complain that the Protocol is “killing small businesses.”
“Hopefully they come in again, but no one is actually working for the people,” the 58-year-old said.
In England, Conservatives are expected to lose hundreds of councilors and even control of long-standing strongholds in London to the UK’s main opposition Labor Party.
“People across the country will focus on which government, which party, will deliver for them,” Johnson said this week.
He tried to evade the so-called “partygate” scandal that last month saw him become the first British Prime Minister to be fined for breaking the law while in office.
In Scotland, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is hoping for a good performance in competitions for all 32 local authorities to lay the groundwork for another independence referendum.
Johnson has repeatedly rejected a call for a second poll, after Scots in 2014 voted 55% to 45% not to pull away.