KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — Jamaica's outgoing leader said Sunday that public perceptions about his handling of a U.S. extradition request for drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke contributed to his recent decision to resign.
In a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Bruce Golding said questions about the role he played in the Coke saga, which he said affected him deeply, have remained a source of concern.
"I cannot allow the challenges we face and the issues that we as a people must confront to be smothered or overpowered by this saga and the emotions that they ignite. It would not be fair to my country; it would not be fair to my party," Golding said.
As he has maintained previously, Golding said his nine-month opposition to the U.S. extradition request for Coke in 2009 and 2010 was due to the U.S. indictment relying on illegal wiretap evidence.
"It was about a breach of our Constitution and had it been a person other than Coke it perhaps would never have become the cause celebre that it turned out to be," said Golding, whose Parliament district included Coke's West Kingston slum stronghold.
After Golding reversed himself amid growing public discontent over his opposition, Coke's supporters began barricading streets and preparing for battle in West Kingston's Tivoli Gardens. A hunt for Coke in May 2010 led to four days of fighting that killed at least 73 civilians and three security officers.
Coke was captured about a month later and extradited. He has since pleaded guilty to racketeering and assault charges, admitting his was leader of the brutal Shower Posse gang.
The prime minister's handling of the Coke case, in particular his authorization of a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the request, provoked an outcry that threatened his political career. With opposition parties and public sector groups calling for his resignation, the governing party vouched for him following a high-level conference last year.
Golding's words on Sunday night were the first public comments he had made since he and his Labor Party abruptly announced a week ago that he would be stepping down after four years in office. They said he would formally resign once a new party leader is chosen by roughly 5,000 delegates at an upcoming party conference. The party's leader automatically becomes the prime minister.
While stepping down from the island's No. 1 political job, it's still not clear if Golding will be closing out some four decades in politics. He made no mention of whether he planned to step down from his parliamentary seat representing West Kingston.
The Labor Party said Golding had previously planned to give up leadership in 2014, if he led his party to victory for a second consecutive term. Golding led the Labor Party back to power in 2007 after 18 years in opposition.
On Sunday night, the 63-year-old also said a younger leader is needed to breathe new life into his party ahead of 2012 general elections.
Noting that he was first elected to Parliament nearly 40 years ago and will soon turn 64, Golding said it was time for members of his generation to make way for younger leaders "more in sync with 21st Century realities."
Attention has focused on Education Minister Andrew Holness and Commerce Minister Christopher Tufton, relatively young Cabinet members in Golding's administration. A poll earlier this year suggested that Holness was the most popular choice to lead Labor if Golding were to resign.
If the Labor Party chooses a young politician as its chief it will contrast sharply with the opposition People's National Party, whose leader has been a fixture in Jamaican politics for decades.
Opposition boss Portia Simpson Miller led the nation as prime minister for about a year-and-a-half before the 2007 loss to Labor. She was first elected to Parliament in 1976 and became a Cabinet member in 1989.
Golding said the next few weeks will be crucial for the Labor Party but also for the country.
The election of a new leader is a process that must be done in a "mature, transparent and dignified manner," he said.
Labor was in the opposition for nearly two decades before Golding brought his party back to power in 2007.
Perceptions of corruption, patronage and cronyism dog the governing party, but they also haunt the People's National Party.
Golding argues that his government is finally putting the country on a solid economic pathway. This year it has divested money-losing entities such as Air Jamaica and its three remaining sugar factories. A crackdown on gangs has decreased the crime rate.
The country was hard hit by the global recession, but lately the economy appears to be on a meager upswing. The country recorded first-quarter growth of 1.4 percent and the inflation rate for the first five months of the year was 1.7 percent.
Last year, Jamaica's towering debt and the damaging impact of the global recession forced Golding's government to seek assistance from the IMF, which helped his administration carry out a debt restructuring and provided $1.27 billion in standby credits.
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