KINGSTON, Jamaica — Jamaica's opposition capitalized on discontent over the economy to return to power Thursday, as voters gave the country's first female leader a second chance to govern the island.
Supporters of former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, 66, shimmied and shouted in the capital, Kingston, as they heard that the center-right government of Prime Minister Andrew Holness had been defeated and their candidate had staged a dramatic political comeback in general elections.
Holness, Jamaica's youngest prime minister at 39, said the defeat will prompt a time of introspection and reflection for leaders of his Jamaica Labor Party to examine what went wrong.
"I wish the new government well. We hope for the benefit of the country that they will do a good job," said Holness, who warned during the campaign that an opposition win would scare away foreign investment and dash hopes of economic progress.
While official results have not been released, elections director Orrette Fisher told The Associated Press that preliminary results showed Simpson Miller's slightly left-of-center People's National Party, or PNP, heading to victory.
"Based on the margins, it appears safe to say" that Simpson Miller's party won, Fisher said shortly after Jamaican newspapers and broadcasters called the election for her faction. He expected his office to release the official count and breakdown of parliamentary seats on Saturday.
News station TVJ said the PNP won 41 seats in parliament and Holness's Jamaica Labor Party 22.
Simpson Miller is beloved by her supporters for her folksy, plainspoken style and is referred to affectionately as "Sista P" and "Comrade Leader." 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. But she was tossed out of office a year later in a narrow election defeat.
On Thursday, she thanked her supporters at party headquarters in Kingston, where more than a thousand elated partisans decked out in the party's color of orange swayed to reggae and soul tunes, waved flags and clapped hands.
"I am humbled as I stand before you and I wish to thank the Jamaican people for their love, for their support and for giving the People's National Party and the leader of the party her own mandate," she said, after receiving hugs from numerous candidates, some crying.
She has pledged to lift debt-wracked Jamaica out of poverty, secure foreign investment, and create jobs.
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 PNP will do is get "a true assessment of the state of the economy," a dig at Holness' party which was accused of rarely providing citizens with a clear picture of the island's dire fiscal straits.
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.
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.
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.
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 her 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 taking three questions from reporters.
By contrast, Simpson Miller hugged and chatted with supporters at a school in Whitfield Town and told election workers to help struggling elderly voters.
Her party, which experimented with democratic socialism in the 1970s, is still perceived as more focused on social programs for the poor than the slightly more conservative Labor. There are no longer stark ideological differences between the two clan-like factions that have dominated Jamaican politics since the onetime British colony began self-rule in 1944. Jamaica became independent within the British Commonwealth in 1962.
She has inspired some hope for a young, 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.
Associated Press Writer Howard Campbell in Kingston contributed to this report.
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