KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaica’s main opposition party rode a wave of discontent with a bad economy to a big win at the polls on Thursday, in general elections that swept former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller back into office.
Despite pre-election surveys predicting a close and hard-fought race, preliminary official results showed Simpson Miller’s People’s National Party, or PNP, winning roughly two-thirds of the parliamentary seats at stake.
“We have plenty of work ahead of us,” Simpson Miller told supporters in a nationally televised address at a raucous late night victory rally outside her party’s Kingston headquarters.
She pledged “growth and development with job creation” but also alluded to the Caribbean nation’s huge debt burden and possible new austerity measures, as part of a $1.27 billion bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
“We will hide nothing from you. When it is tough and rough we’ll let you know,” Simpson Miller said. “But I can also ensure you, as we move to balance the books, we will be moving to balance people’s lives as well.”
The election delivered what outgoing Prime Minister Andrew Holness described as a “humbling” defeat for the governing Jamaica Labour Party, or JLP. The 39-year-old former education minister had hoped to keep the JLP in power for a second consecutive term.
The country’s youngest-ever prime minister, Holness took office in October after the party suffered a blow when his predecessor surprisingly resigned amid weak public backing.
Holness’ predecessor, Bruce Golding, had been dogged by a long-brewing scandal over his handling of a U.S. request for the extradition of a notorious Jamaican gang leader who was associated with the JLP.
The scandal ended with the extradition to New York of long-time fugitive Christopher “Dudus” Coke, but only after a brutal police and military raid on a Kingston slum that left 76 people dead.
“The people of Jamaica have spoken,” Holness said late on Thursday, after his party conceded defeat.
“I wish the new government well,” he said. “There are challenges that they will face, challenges that we are quite well aware of. And we hope for the benefit of the country and for the interest of the people of Jamaica that they will do a good job.”
The center-right JLP is considered slightly more conservative than Simpson Miller’s PNP, which narrowly lost a general election in 2007 after she briefly served as Jamaica’s first female prime minister.
But there are no major ideological differences between the parties, and neither Simpson Miller nor Holness are considered charismatic or especially strong public speakers.
Simpson Miller had the PNP’s well-oiled political machine behind her, however, and it appeared to work well in many of the island’s low and middle-income communities.
“This is a great moment for me,” said Desmond Barnes, a 29-year-old computer analyst in the capital Kingston.
“I voted for the PNP because our economy is in shambles and this is the only party that I believe can rebuild it,” he said.
Despite the reggae-crazed island nation’s past reputation for political bloodletting and vote tampering, there were no reports of any serious irregularities or violence on election day.
Voting proceeded at a glacial pace in some areas, however, and there were complaints about slow-working electronic voter identity machines at some polling places.
Analysts have said neither party would have much room to maneuver as it dealt with a public debt load totaling more than 120 percent of gross domestic product and unemployment that has risen to about 13 percent from just under 10 in 2007.
Simpson Miller did not spell out any belt-tightening or other economic measures in her long and sometimes rambling victory speech.
But she has vowed to appeal to the IMF to extend the period Jamaica has to repay any loans to give the Caribbean island more leeway to jump-start the economy.
Calling for “concertation” and “dialogue,” the matronly prime minister-elect said she would work to “unearth the greatness that lives in every single Jamaican,” from sun-drenched beach resorts to mountain villages and urban slums.
“To all business persons, from large investors to medium and small enterprises, to youth, to mother, to father and children, know you have a government now that you can trust,” she said.
Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Paul Simao