LONDON — The candidates to run London for the next four years could be straight out of a television sitcom. On the left is the incumbent, Ken Livingstone, a fiery ex-Socialist. To his right is gaffe-prone journalist-turned-member of Parliament, Boris Johnson, a Conservative who has earned ridicule and support in the British press. And somewhere in the middle is the leading third-party candidate, a Liberal Democrat named Brian Paddick, a gay former policeman.
On Thursday, after one of the most entertaining political campaigns in memory, Londoners will decide who should run this sprawling city of nearly 8 million people for the next four years. Recent polls show Livingstone and Johnson locked in a tight race, with a growing number giving Johnson the edge.
What would possibly prompt voters in one of the world's most successful cities to take a chance on Johnson? Part of the answer is simply fatigue with Livingstone, who vowed at one time not to serve more than one term. He hasn't helped his chances with some disingenuous comments in recent weeks, such as taking far more credit for planning the 2012 Olympic Games than sports officials say is believable.
Johnson, who was widely regarded as a token challenger when he launched his bid, has been far more adept at connecting with many voters. He's clearly smarter than he pretends, and his shambolic style masks a platform with some fairly sensible positions.
Although often portrayed as a floppy-haired buffoon, Johnson edited the conservative magazine The Spectator before being elected to Parliament. Despite the fact that he attended Eton, England's most exclusive boarding school, his comical image has been enhanced by a bumbling, joking style that includes some extremely arcane language. He claims to be conversant in ancient Greek and tends to string together the sort of sentences that are usually crafted to impress high school English teachers.
He's also managed to insult various ethnic groups along the way, but has managed to win over many voters with his humor, apologies and vows to do better. When questions arise about his suitability to lead a city as diverse as London, he plays up his descent from a Turk and, as his story goes, a Circassian slave.
The intended policies of "Boris," as he's widely known here, have received less attention than his personality has, but he's struck a chord with many voters as he focuses on reducing crime, improving transportation and cracking down on out-of-control teens who are considered a menace by many passengers on London's transportation network. But some of his proposed improvements are quirky at best, such as doing away with long articulated buses, known as "bendy buses" and bringing back the open-backed models that allowed riders to run and hop on the platform.
Livingstone is equally colorful. Known as "Red Ken" from the days he headed the Greater London Council in the 1980s and was a constant thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher, he's mellowed a bit and now embraces the financiers who've turned London into a rival of New York. Still, Livingstone hasn't completely shed all his old habits, and he likes to dabble in ad hoc diplomacy with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who has offered to supply cheap fuel for London's buses.
Livingstone, who is a favorite of local unions and various ethnic groups, is credited with improving the city in a number of ways, including sprucing up Trafalgar Square. More controversially, he's backed the development of new skyscrapers that some consider a blight on the skyline and introduced a congestion charge in an effort to reduce traffic in the city center — a system New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to adopt.
The fact that he previously vowed not to serve more than one term has hurt his credibility with many voters. Having a choice is a relative novelty in London, whose mayor has only been directly elected since 2000. The mayor of London doesn't' have as much independence as his counterparts in New York or Chicago, but the role has become significantly more important in recent years. It'll have still more clout as London prepares to host the summer Olympic Games in 2012.
The outcome of Thursday's election also is being watched in the broader context of Britain's national politics. The Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown is weighed down by scandals and missteps, and the Conservatives are known are looking strong in national opinion polls. While a general election is still probably two years away, many are watching this week's vote for harbingers of things to come.
The local-national connection looks more important for one side than the other. Although Brown and Livingstone aren't close, a Livingstone victory could help the prime minister change the conversation about his dire performance. On the other hand, Johnson and Conservative party leader David Cameron (a fellow old Etonion) have campaigned together, and a Johnson victory will allow Conservatives to argue that the people of London are ready for change, preferably starting with 10 Downing Street.
(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)