KINGSTON, Jamaica — Jamaica's two main political parties are in a neck-and-neck race to capture a majority of the country's 63 parliamentary seats and win control of the government for the next five years.
Both sides were predicting victory after a hard-fought lead-up to Thursday's general elections pitting Jamaica's youngest prime minister and his center-right party against a veteran opponent who hopes to return her center-left faction to power and take a second lap as leader.
With most opinion polls putting the two parties in a virtual dead heat, candidates have scrambled for traction with undecided voters across the Caribbean island known as the birthplace of reggae and a hothouse for big-time sprinters.
Andrew Holness, a 39-year-old lawmaker who was unanimously chosen to be prime minister by his party just two months ago when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid anemic public backing, has tried to woo swing voters by promising new jobs in a debt-wracked nation with roughly 13 percent unemployment.
"Jamaicans are now safer, our economy is stable with a solid foundation for job creation," Holness said in a last-minute national address touting Labor's record.
Holness, largely seen as an unexciting but calm, pragmatic leader, said his party has started to reverse economic stagnation and effectively battled criminal gangs that have long been the scourge of the country. He has also pledged to modernize the bloated public sector without massive layoffs.
He argues that the PNP severely mismanaged the economy over its 18-year-tenure until its 2007 election loss, leading to a steady devaluation of the Jamaican dollar that cut deeply into the purchasing power of most wage earners and caused the standard of living to fall.
Meanwhile, 66-year-old opposition chief Portia Simpson Miller, a stalwart of the People's National Party since its days as a democratic socialist faction in the 1970s, has dismissed Holness as an indecisive leader and painted his party as hopelessly corrupt and unsympathetic to the plight of Jamaica's many poor inhabitants.
"It is not only going to be a victory but a wipeout of the Jamaica Labor Party," she told a crowd of cheering supporters dressed in the party's color of orange.
Simpson Miller 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 plain speaking style and warm interactions with supporters.
But detractors say her political style is largely superficial and 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 of Thursday's vote will face deep economic problems on this island of 2.8 million people. Jamaica's punishing debt stands at roughly $18.6 billion, or 130 per cent of gross domestic product, a rate about 10 percentage points higher than Italy's and 20 points lower than Greece's.
Jamaica's economy has been on a meager upswing, but roughly 60 percent of government spending still goes to debt and another 30 percent pays wages. That leaves just 10 percent for education, health, security and other parts of the budget.
Still, the monthlong campaign often bristled with a festive feel as cheering, horn-honking caravans of partisans attended packed rallies, waving banners and dancing to reggae tunes pounding out of big speakers.
But the campaign has also stirred some anxiety during the Christmas season as scattered incidents of violence and vandalism have been reported. Thousands of police officers and soldiers have been deployed to maintain security.
Political Ombudsman Bishop Herro Blair said Wednesday that the campaign was one of the "best we've ever had" in Jamaica, with just three deaths and about a half dozen woundings that he says investigators might eventually determine to be politically motivated.
In the lead-up to the 1980 elections, more than 800 people were killed in political clashes. Since then, large-scale political violence has dissipated and most killings are blamed on the drug and extortion trade.
Although most recent polls show a dead heat, the political team at the Jamaica Gleaner, the island's largest newspaper, has predicted that Labor will capture 34 of the 63 seats, while the PNP will claim 29.
Omar Wright, a 23-year-old unemployed man voting in his first election, said a lack of jobs convinced him to vote for the opposition.
"It's hard out here," Douglas said on a packed corner in downtown Kingston, where vendors were selling flip flops, towels and phone cards. "I don't think any of these politicians really know how hard it is, but we need a change."
Nearby, Reiza Davies, a 29-year-old clothes vendor, said she was voting Labor because people in her community always do.
"Anything is better than the PNP," she said, making a sour face.
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