KINGSTON, Jamaica — The center-right party of Jamaica's youngest prime minister was in a tight race Thursday against the slightly left-leaning party headed by the island's first female leader in a battle to win control of the government for the next five years.
Jamaican elections have turned violent in the past but there were no reports of trouble as polls opened for the 63 parliamentary races. Soldiers with automatic weapons kept watch over the polling station in the Mona neighborhood where Prime Minister Andrew Holness cast his ballot.
Holness' Labor Party is considered a little more conservative and business-friendly than the rival People's National Party, which experimented with democratic socialism in the 1970s and is still perceived as more focused on social programs for the poor. But there are no longer stark ideological differences between the two clan-like factions that have dominated Jamaican politics since independence from Britain in 1962.
During the monthlong campaign, both parties pledged to lift debt-wracked Jamaica out of poverty, secure foreign investment, work with international lenders and create jobs.
Holness cast his vote early Thursday while surrounded by a scrum of reporters. He said he was "very confident" of a Labor victory, shortly after being heckled by an opposition partisan, Joan Gregory McNeish, at the Mona polling center.
McNeish, 52, wearing the PNP's color of orange from head to foot, shouted at Holness, saying he was going to lose.
"Labor and Holness stand for decay, for no ethics, for American-backed corruption," she said said earlier. "PNP the only way forward. Ghetto people won't take any more crap."
Alyshia Campbell, a 27-year-old first-time voter who was one of the first people to trickle in, said she also was voting for the opposition People's National Party because she was able to study medicine in Cuba under the government of Portia Simpson Miller.
"Under them, I got a chance to study so I hope they win," she said, holding a medical textbook beneath her arm. "It's harder now."
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.
Holness was chosen to be prime minister by his party just two months ago when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid anemic public backing. He has promised new jobs in a 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.
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 modernize the bloated public sector without massive layoffs.
He argues that the PNP mismanaged the economy over its 18-year-tenure until its 2007 election loss, causing a steady devaluation of the Jamaican dollar that cut deeply into the purchasing power of most wage earners.
Opposition leader Simpson Miller, a stalwart of the PNP since its days as a democratic socialist faction, 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, whose party's supporters refer to themselves as "comrades," 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 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 $18.6 billion, 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 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 had 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.
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 injuries 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.
The political team at the Jamaica Gleaner, the island's largest newspaper, has projected that Labor will hold onto power by capturing 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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