Rock bottom turn-out feared for Welsh assembly poll

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APATHY RULES OK! With polling for the Welsh Assembly only four days away, the campaign in what is dubbed "Wales's First General Election" bumbles along with all the fire of a parish council fight in mid-winter.

That worries the politicians. A turnout of less than 60 per cent on Thursday would be a blow to the devolutionary enthusiasts and at the same time reinforce the sceptics' claim that the assembly will turn out to be just another talking shop.

Much time and money is being expended on trying to shake the electorate out of its torpor. The Government's pounds 2m public awareness campaign has not passed the value-for-money test. A glossy bilingual booklet extolling the assembly's virtues has dropped through a million letter boxes. Newspaper advertisements urging "Make your marks on Wales" (with Welsh translation "Gadewch Eich ol Gymru" alongside) have gladdened advertisement managers' hearts.

Party leaders appeal endlessly for voters to turn out in strength on Thursday. A pounds 55,000 TV campaign urging people to vote started yesterday. The road to the assembly is strewn with doubt. Wales voted for devolution by a whisker on 18 September, 1997, when the turnout only just topped 50 per cent.

Labour's leadership problems are still mulled over in pubs and clubs. From Ron Davies's "moment of madness" on Clapham Common to the arrival by emergency parachute of Alun Michael, it has been a story of intrigue and innuendo. Rhodri Morgan, Mr Michael's opponent, plays a loyalist role. His supporters remind anyone who cares to listen that their man's poll rating is nine points higher than Mr Michael's.

Pollsters from NOP also found that of the four party leaders, Plaid Cymru's Dafydd Wigley was out in front on 48 per cent with Mr Michael on 32 per cent, Rod Richards (Tory) on 14 per cent and Mike German (Liberal Democrat) on 6 per cent.

Plaid has its own problems. The party hastily removed references to independence from its website and Mr Wigley, sensitive to Wales's lack of interest in going it alone, declared sternly: "The party has never ever espoused independence."

That played badly in the rural heartlands where nationalism and the Welsh language have deep roots. Councillors in Caernarfon, which Mr Wigley has represented at Westminster for 25 years, defected in disgust to form the nationalist equivalent of the Militant Tendency.

Labour looks to hold the largest number of seats in the 60-member assembly, 40 of which will be filled by first-past-the-post contests, with a "top- up" of 20 elected by pro- portional representation from party lists.

Mr Michael, who hopes to become Wales' new First Minister, heads his party's PR list in Mid and West Wales. His chances of success depend on a paradox that the Millbank spinners drafted in for the duration have yet to resolve satisfactorily. If Labour loses Carmarthen East - the nationalists' number one target - his prospects look bright. But should the party hang on there and do well in neighbouring Brecon and Radnorshire, he is doomed to become a leader with nowhere to sit. That would trigger another leadership contest with Mr Morgan.

Last week's polls suggested that Plaid will end up a comfortable second with 12 or more seats, while the Tories and Liberal Democrats can look forward to seven or eight apiece. A low turnout would damage Labour's chances of achieving a convincing majority but the party should win 32 seats.

Tony Blair's flying visit to Cardiff on Friday gave the campaign a push and no doubt the faithful of every political denomination will have spent yesterday praying for fine weather on Thursday.

A little brio is injected into the dull campaign by Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party with demands for a pounds 6-an-hour minimum wage and the re-opening of 10 collieries in South Wales where today only one deep mine is working. The NUM president's list is headed by Richard Booth, the eccentric self-styled "King of Hay-on-Wye" who turned the little mid- Wales town into the second-hand books capital of the world.

Newcomers who can be counted on to add panache to the assembly include Labour's Alison Halford, the former assistant chief constable of Merseyside, who won a six-figure out-of-court settlement after a lengthy sex discrimination battle, and Cherry Short, a UK race commissioner and the only black candidate. Mr Richards, the Tory leader, is nicknamed "Rottweiler Rod". His outspoken attacks on the Welsh language confirm his ability to bite ankles.

Last week, Mr Michael abseiled down a 150ft building in Cardiff to raise money for cancer research. He declared that confidence was the key ingredient necessary for electoral success, as well as for making a soft landing from a great height. The chances of Thursday's poll turning into devolution's crash landing should not to be discounted.