Ballot-rigging claims muddy Govan fight

Labour candidate denies fraud, writes Stephen Goodwin
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The studied calm displayed by Mohammed Sawar, the Labour candidate, as the poison has flowed in Glasgow's faction-ridden Govan constituency this last year is starting to desert him after suggestions that he and his supporters have tried to rig the ballot.

"My hands are clean," Mr Sawar insisted at the weekend as Strathclyde police continued investigations into the extraordinary number of late entries to Govan's electoral roll.

Out of 484 last-minute applications across Glasgow's nine constituencies, 279 came from Govan where Mr Sawar, a self-made millionaire, is facing not only a by-election style challenge from the Scottish National Party but candidates with personal axes to grind.

William Johnston, the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) called in the police last week after disallowing seven Govan applications. Since then it has emerged that 200 of the new voters are Asians in Pollokshields East, the ward represented by Mr Sawar on Glasgow city council.

The scandal, as Mr Sawar pointed out, is not the high number of late entries but the fact that residents were not on the roll in the first place. "The ERO says he is alarmed at the 279, but why is he not alarmed at the numbers missing from the register? It is shameful to suggest that helping people to register is in any way an organised fraud to rig the ballot."

People who should have been getting information in Urdu or Hindi on how to register might now fear from the actions of the ERO that to do so could bring the police to their door with a charge of fraud, Mr Sawar told The Independent. The Sawar camp make no bones about encouraging people to enrol. Forms were published in the party's newsletter and activists filled in details on doorsteps - but they say citizenship rules were explained.

"I don't feel guilty if there are 279 late entries," Mr Sawar said. "I wish there were 679 or 1,079. If somebody is involved in fraud they should be prosecuted. But the seven could be mistakes. It is bizarre. What is the scandal when still in Govan, five to 10 per cent of the people are not on the electoral roll?"

Raised in a hut 15 miles from Faisalbad in Pakistan, Mr Sawar came to Scotland 20 years ago and from a corner shop built up a cash-and-carry business with an pounds 85m turnover. He won his council seat in a formerly safe Tory ward in 1992 and now, aged 44, is poised to become Britain's first Muslim MP.

But he has made enemies on the way. His selection a year ago in a bitter contest with Mike Watson, MP for the disappearing seat of Glasgow Central, split the party. The ballot had to be re-run after a dispute over postal votes and eight Watson-supporting party officers quit their posts.

Two of the record 10 candidates standing in Govan - Peter Paton, Unofficial Labour, and Zahid Abbasi, Independent Conservative - are friends of Abdul Huq, the father of two girls Mr Sawar "rescued" last year in a high-publicity dash to Pakistan. Mr Huq, who was alleged to have abducted the Glasgow- born girls and forced them into marriage, is suing Mr Sawar in the Scottish courts.

Another Pakistani, Badar Islam, is standing as a Labour Independent. Though no friend of Mr Huq's, he claims Mr Sawar's rescue mission brought "shame" on the Asian community.

Mr Sawar's vociferous opposition to Indian control of Kashmir is said to be behind approaches to friends and political associates with offers of up to pounds 250,000 for sexual gossip to smear the would-be MP.

The constituency has changed from the Govan won twice by the SNP in by-elections. Within its redrawn boundaries are the archetypal tenements of Govan proper, streets of Asian-owned shops and the detached villas of Maxwell Park, Glasgow's poshest enclave.

Nicola Sturgeon, the feisty young SNP candidate, talks of a "cloud of suspicion" over the late entries to the roll. The SNP have courted the Asian vote - about 7 per cent of the constituency - through their own organisation, Scots Asians for Independence.

Ms Sturgeon, a 26-year-old solicitor, could be the ultimate beneficiary of the affair. The police investigation is expected to take weeks, with hundreds of people to interview. But if wrong-doing emerges and the ballot has to be re-run, Ms Sturgeon's vigorous campaigning could pay off.