Leader of the People's National Party of Jamaica, Portia Simpson Miller, will be returning to office as prime minister of the Caribbean-island nation of Jamaica. The PNP scored an upset over the JLP., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Jamaica's opposition party dominates elections
The Associated Press
Updated: Thu. Dec. 29 2011 10:32 PM ET
KINGSTON, Jamaica — Orange-clad supporters of Jamaica's opposition party claimed victory in elections Thursday, a win that would bring the country's first female prime minister back to office for a second time.
It marks a dramatic political comeback for the 66-year-old Portia Simpson Miller, a former prime minister beloved by supporters for her folksy, plain-spoken style.
"Based on the margins, it appears safe to say" that Simpson Miller's party won, Election Director Orrette Fisher said, referring to preliminary results.
Jamaican newspapers and broadcasters called the election for her slightly left-leaning political faction. But Fisher said he is still waiting for all electoral officers to report so a breakdown of the 63 parliamentary seats was not immediately ready. He expected his office to release the official count on Saturday.
The campaign manager for Prime Minister Andrew Holness conceded defeat late Thursday.
"Everything we saw on the campaign trail suggested we would win. We have not won," Karl Samuda told Jamaican broadcaster TVJ. "The people have spoken."
Simpson Miller was Jamaica's first female prime minister in 2006 but was tossed out of office a year later in a narrow election defeat.
She was expected to address backers shortly at party headquarters in Kingston, where more than a thousand visibly elated partisans decked out in the party's colour of orange swayed to reggae tunes and clapped hands.
"The people of Jamaica will have something to smile about tonight," Simpson Miller said Thursday afternoon as the island's roughly 6,600 polling stations closed.
Her rival was the 39-year-old Holness, Jamaica's youngest leader.
Holness, who became prime minister two months ago after Bruce Golding, Jamaica's leader since 2007, abruptly stepped down in October amid anemic public backing, won his parliamentary seat with 54 per cent of the vote. He did not immediately comment.
Political commentator Patrick Bailey said Holness, who was a respected education minister before becoming prime minister, shouldn't be blamed for the loss.
"In fact, he is the one who made it competitive for the JLP," Bailey said.
Simpson Miller has been a stalwart of the People's National Party since the 1970s. She paints herself as a champion of the poor and was first elected to Parliament in 1976 and became a Cabinet member in 1989.
She became Jamaica's first female prime minister in March 2006 after she was picked by party delegates when P.J. Patterson retired as leader.
Partisans have long admired Simpson Miller as a Jamaican who was born in rural poverty and grew up in a Kingston ghetto, not far from the crumbling concrete jungle made famous by Bob Marley. Also referred to as "Sista P" and "Comrade Leader," she is known for her folksy style.
During her brief tenure as prime minister, her support waned amid complaints she responded poorly to Hurricane Dean and was evasive about a scandal regarding a Dutch oil trading firm's $460,000 payment to her political party leading up to 2007 elections.
After she was defeated in 2007 elections, she remained leader of the People's National Party, setting the stage for a political comeback.
The two top candidates' different styles were clear while they cast their votes.
Holness is largely seen as unexciting, but bright and pragmatic. He whisked into the voting centre in the middle class area of Mona, barely interacting with voters. After being heckled by an opposition partisan, he said he was "very confident" of a Labor victory and departed after quickly taking three questions from reporters.
By contrast, the 66-year-old Simpson Miller, who had been the country's first female prime minister, hugged and chatted with supporters at a school in Whitfield Town, most of them clad in the party's orange.
She has inspired some hope for a struggling nation fed up with chronic hard times.
"She cares about the ghetto people," said Trishette Bond, a twenty-something resident of gritty Trench Town who wore an orange shirt and a bright orange wig to show her allegiance to the People's National Party.
But her party will face deep economic problems in this island of 2.8 million people, with a punishing debt of roughly $18.6 billion, or 130 per cent of gross domestic product. That's a rate about 10 percentage points higher than debt-troubled Italy's.
Veteran opposition lawmaker Omar Davies said one of the first things the People's National Party will do is get "a true assessment of the state of the economy," a dig at Holness' party which suffered from concerns that they rarely provided citizens with a clear picture of the island's dire fiscal straits.
Jamaica began self-rule in 1944 and became independent within the British Commonwealth in 1962.
Voting ends in hard-fought Jamaica general election
Thu, Dec 29 2011
By Horace Helps
KINGSTON, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Voting ended in Jamaica on Thursday as Prime Minister Andrew Holness sought a popular mandate to tackle the Caribbean country's deepening economic woes in a closely contested general election.
On the eve of the voting, polls showed Jamaica's two long dominant parties, the governing Jamaica Labor Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP), running neck-and-neck in parliamentary elections focused on the island's stagnant and debt-ridden economy.
Police and soldiers stood guard at polling stations across the country throughout the day. Jamaica has a history of election violence but the run-up to the vote was one of its most peaceful in years.
Holness, a 39-year-old former education minister, was hoping to keep the center-right JLP in power for a second consecutive term.
The country's youngest-ever prime minister, he took office in October after the governing party suffered a blow when his predecessor surprisingly resigned.
The PNP is led by Portia Simpson Miller, a former prime minister who became Jamaica's first female leader in 2006 and has vowed to make Holness one of the shortest-serving premiers in the island nation's history.
The winner of the election will face the stiff challenge of re-invigorating the economy in one of the world's most indebted countries.
Polls closed at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT) and the Electoral Commission of Jamaica was expected to announce the winning party, based on preliminary official results, sometime before midnight. There were no reports of any serious voting irregularities or violence marring the election.
Initial reports from election monitors said less than half of Jamaica's 1.6 million eligible voters had cast ballots in the race, which was held against a grim economic backdrop.
Although one of the Caribbean's more developed economies, Jamaica is saddled with a public debt load now totaling more than 120 percent of its gross domestic product.
The country's burdensome debt has proved a drag on the economy, which is dependent on tourism and has failed to grow in the past four years, sputtering since the JLP took power.
Unemployment has risen from 9.8 percent in 2007 to 12.9 percent.
Devon Jameson, a 31-year-old accountant, said the struggling economy led him to vote for the opposition.
"The JLP has wrecked this country with its poor economic policies," he said. "Our national debt is growing, unemployment is rising and poverty is getting worse."
Analysts say the new government likely will be forced to implement unpopular austerity measures, including possible layoffs of state workers, in an effort to shore up the economy after it received a $1.27 billion lifeline from the International Monetary Fund last year.
Holness pledged on the campaign trail to spur the economy by attracting private investment to infrastructure projects. He also said the ruling party had successfully reduced crime in the reggae-crazed country, long plagued by criminal gangs, or so-called posses.
Simpson Miller vowed if elected to appeal to the IMF to extend the period Jamaica has to repay any loans to give authorities more leeway to jump-start the economy.
She voiced confidence her party would triumph as she voted at a school in the capital of Kingston. "I feel a wind of change blowing across Jamaica," Simpson Miller told reporters.
The election comes a year earlier than originally scheduled. Worried about the global economic outlook and its implications for Jamaica, Holness called the vote in early December only weeks after being sworn in as prime minister.
Holness was chosen by JLP lawmakers after former Prime Minister Bruce Golding resigned over fallout from his handling of a U.S. request for the extradition of a notorious Jamaican gang leader.
After initially fighting Christopher "Dudus" Coke's extradition to New York on drug-trafficking charges, Golding's administration bowed to U.S. pressure in May 2010 and sent police and the military into Kingston's slums to take him into custody.
Seventy-six people died in ensuing gun battles between government forces and supporters of Coke, once a strong JLP supporter who wielded powerful influence in the slums.
If Holness and the JLP lose the election, it would mark the first time Jamaicans voted out an incumbent government after only one term.
A defeat also would make Holness one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in Jamaican history. That record would still be held by Donald Sangster, who took office in February
1967 but died of illness less than two months later.
(Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott)