Youngest Jamaica PM faces ex-leader in tight vote

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.

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