Jamaican opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller has reclaimed leadership of the country in a dramatic political comeback.
The ruling Labour party conceded defeat on Thursday after winning just 22 of the 63 parliamentary seats at stake in the general election.
With about 50 per cent of ballots counted, according to results from the national electoral office posted on the website of the Jamaica Observer newspaper, the opposition People’s National Party [PNP] looked set to win 41 seats.
The result makes Prime Minister Andrew Holness one of the shortest-serving premiers in the island nation’s history.
“This [election] was anything but close and really was more a vote against this administration,” Milton Walker, the head of news at TVJ channel, told Al Jazeera.
“[PNP] promised employment using loan funds that have already been approved – emergency programmes to make sure lower-income people who are unemployed would get jobs in short term.
“But we’re being told that the turnout is the lowest since 1949. It used to be 80 per cent … we’re seeing that it could be just over 50 per cent.”
Simpson Miller was born in rural poverty and grew up in a Kingston ghetto. Also called “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.
A stalwart of the PNP since its days as a democratic socialist faction in the 1970s, she has dismissed Holness as indecisive and painted his party as hopelessly corrupt and unsympathetic to the plight of Jamaica’s many poor inhabitants.
Holness, 39, was chosen to be prime minister by his party just two months ago, when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid dwindling public support.
He had promised new jobs in a debt-wracked nation with roughly 13 per cent unemployment.
Largely seen as unexciting but calm and pragmatic, Holness said his party had started to reverse economic stagnation and had effectively battled criminal gangs that have long been the scourge of the country.
He also pledged to modernise the bloated public sector without massive layoffs.
The winner will face deep economic problems. The island of 2.8 million people has a punishing debt of roughly $8.6bn, 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 meagre 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.