Jamaica's opposition party dominates elections

December 29, 2011 - 11:31 PM
Jamaica Elections

Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness shows his inked finger after casting a ballot in parliamentary elections in Kingston, Jamaica, Thursday Dec. 29, 2011. Jamaica is holding 63 parliamentary races where Holness' Jamaica Labour Party is in a tight race against the People's National Party, headed by former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, to win control of the government for the next five years. (AP Photo/Collin Reid)

KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — 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 color 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 percent 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 center 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.

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