Voting ends in hard-fought Jamaica polls
Country's youngest prime minister competes with its first female leader for control of government for next five years.
Last Modified: 30 Dec 2011 03:00
Andrew Holness and Portia Simpson Miller are locked in a tight battle as opinion polls show them tied [AFP]

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 Labour Party (JLP) and the left-leaning People's National Party (PNP), running neck-and-neck in parliamentary elections focused on the island's stagnant and debt-ridden economy.

Jamaican elections have turned violent in the past but there were no reports of trouble as polls opened on Thursday for the 63 parliamentary races.

The vote hit some snags as fingerprint scanners meant to stop people from voting more than once worked intermittently, leading to lengthy lines at some of the roughly 6,600 polling centers in the island country.

At one polling centre in the volatile Tower Hill area of Kingston, exasperated people who had waited in line for hours chanted: "The machines don't work!"

Soldiers with automatic weapons kept watch over the two polling stations where the prime minister Holness and opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller cast their ballots.

The opposition party has tried tapping into voter disillusionment, especially among Jamaica's many poor inhabitants, and complained of the slow voting process on Thursday.

The party also alleged that some ruling party candidates violated rules by campaigning on election day.

Lisa Shoman, the Belizean chief of the observer mission for the Organization of American States, said her 25-member team has not observed "any disturbances or any issues that would cause us any serious concern".

Economic challenges

Holness is a 39-year-old lawmaker who was chosen to be prime minister by his party just two months ago when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid dwindling public support. He has promised new jobs in a debt-wracked nation with roughly 13 per cent unemployment.

Holness, largely seen as unexciting but calm and pragmatic, said his party has started to reverse economic stagnation and has effectively battled criminal gangs that have long been the scourge of the country. He has also pledged to modernise the bloated public sector without massive layoffs.

The opposition leader, a stalwart of the People's National Party since its days as a democratic socialist faction in the 1970s, has dismissed Holness as indecisive and painted his party as hopelessly corrupt and unsympathetic to the plight of Jamaica's many poor inhabitants. 

Simpson Miller was born in rural poverty and grew up in a Kingston ghetto. Also referred to as "Sista P" and "Comrade Leader," she is known for her plain speaking style and warm interactions with supporters. 

But detractors say she was out of her depth during her brief tenure as Jamaica's first female prime minister between March 2006 to September 2007, when her party was narrowly voted out of power.

The winner will face deep economic problems. The island of 2.8 million people has a punishing debt of roughly $18.6bn, or 130 per cent of gross domestic product, a rate about 10 percentage points higher than Italy's.

Jamaica's economy has been on a meager upswing, but roughly 60 per cent of government spending still goes to debt and another 30 per cent pays wages. That leaves just 10 per cent for education, health, security and other parts of the budget.

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