KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) — From beach resort towns to mountain villages, Jamaicans braved bottlenecks for as long as four hours Thursday to cast ballots in fiercely contested national elections.
Previous votes have been marred by bloodshed, but there were few reports of trouble at polling centers for the 63 parliamentary races contested by the center-right Jamaica Labor Party and the slightly left-leaning opposition People’s National Party.
The vote hit some snags as fingerprint scanners meant to stop people from voting more than once worked intermittently, leading to lengthy lines at some of the roughly 6,600 polling centers in the island country.
The breakdown spurred confusion and frustration among voters and election workers. At one polling center in the volatile Tower Hill area of Kingston, exasperated people who had waited in line for hours chanted: “The machines don’t work!”
The People’s National Party has tried tapping into voter disillusionment, especially among Jamaica’s many poor inhabitants, and complained of the slow voting process Thursday. The party also alleged that some ruling party candidates violated rules by campaigning on election day.
Lisa Shoman, the Belizean chief of the observer mission for the Organization of American States, said her 25-member team has not observed “any disturbances or any issues that would cause us any serious concern.”
Military helicopters flew over the capital of Kingston as part of a nationwide security operation involving thousands of soldiers, police and national reserve forces. Soldiers with automatic weapons kept watch over the two polling stations where Prime Minister Andrew Holness and opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller cast their ballots.
The two top candidates’ different styles were clear while they cast their votes.
Holness, who’s the country’s youngest ever leader at age 39, 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.
Holness’ party is considered more conservative and business friendly than the 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. 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 in the thick of the crucial winter tourist season, both parties pledged to lift debt-wracked Jamaica out of poverty, secure foreign investment, work with international lenders and create jobs.
Most opinion polls put the two parties in a virtual dead heat, and 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 as prime minister by his party just two months ago when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid anemic public backing. Holness has promised new jobs in a nation with about 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 said his party has started to reverse economic stagnation and has effectively battled criminal gangs that have long been a scourge. He has also pledged to modernize the bloated public sector without massive layoffs.
He argues that the now-opposition party mismanaged the economy over its 18-year-tenure until its 2007 election loss, and has warned that its win would scare away foreign investment and dash hopes of economic progress.
Simpson Miller, a People’s National Party stalwart 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 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.
Jamaica’s economy has been on a meager upswing, but roughly 60 percent of government spending still goes to debt payments and another 30 percent pays wages. That leaves just 10 percent for education, health, security and other parts of the budget.
Nonetheless, 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 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 determine were 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.
Complaints about Labor were still flying Thursday among the hardcore opposition supporters in Bob Marley’s gritty old neighborhood of Trench Town, where goats graze along tightly packed concrete homes.
“They won’t do nothing for us cause they don’t care. Labor isn’t for the ghetto people,” said Trishette Bond, a twenty-something resident who wore an orange shirt and a bright orange wig to show her allegiance to the People’s National Party.
In a Labor-aligned slum in the East Kingston area of Mountain View, a 46-year-old man who only gave his name as Russ said the youthful Holness deserved a mandate to lead Jamaica in a better direction.
“The (People’s National Party) mashed up this country for a long time. We can’t go back to that,” he said. “It’s young people time now.”
David McFadden on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dmcfadd
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