Jamaicans head to the polls Thursday

Jamaica Labor Party leader Andrew Holness (left) shares a moment with former JLP leader and Jamaica Prime Minister Edward Seaga. The opposition party is hoping to return to power in Thursday’s general elections.
Jamaica Labor Party leader Andrew Holness (left) shares a moment with former JLP leader and Jamaica Prime Minister Edward Seaga. The opposition party is hoping to return to power in Thursday’s general elections. Jamaica Labor Party

The Jamaica Labor Party supporters, sitting at a local bar, had just finished working the campaign circuit in St. James Parish in Montego Bay when unidentified gunmen stepped out of a silver car and opened fire.

The Monday night shooting came after two previous shootings, including one on Feb. 7 in which two people were killed and several others injured as opposition leader Andrew Holness was speaking to supporters during a mass rally. Meanwhile, on Tuesday as the campaigning came to a close, the ruling People’s National Party was forced to temporarily halt its rally in a capital square after gunshots rang out.

“Whoever was the evil that was sent here to do what has happened earlier will recognize that members of the People’s National Party are never afraid of anyone,” a defiant Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said after refusing to allow security forces to shield her from the gunfire that left 30 people injured during a stampede. “You know, I’ve been wondering and I said it to someone that if other meetings were disrupted, when it is they would disrupt a meeting for us?”

While the recent violence marking Jamaica’s general-elections campaign is nowhere near the political violence and deep ideological polarization that have haunted past elections, the gunshots have been a reminder of how far the island-nation has come — and how far it still has to go — as it heads to the polls Thursday.

The fierce contest for control of a troubled Jamaica pits Simpson Miller’s ruling People’s National Party against the main opposition Jamaica Labor Party. It comes months early, and as Jamaica’s debt-ridden economy remains in rescue mode and violent crime continues to rise despite the government’s promise to bring homicide rates to “First World” levels.

“Compared to a few decades ago, we’ve come from very far away,” Mark Wignall, a columnist with the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper, said about the violence that has accompanied Jamaica’s elections campaign. “[But] Jamaicans have never been very strong on issues voting.”

Jamaicans have never been very strong on issues voting.

Mark Wignall, Jamaica

Wignall and others say that while crime, violence and the debt crisis are a top concern for the country’s 2.7 million residents, voters seem poised to give the ruling party another five years at the helm.

“Over the years, we seem to be much more comfortable with the PNP,” Wignall said. “A majority of people are convinced that the PNP is on some form of what Jamaicans consider to be the right path, and they are ready to go along with that and make an investment of faith.”

Five years ago, with Jamaica’s economy on the brink of economic collapse, Simpson Miller, the country’s first female prime minister, rode the wave of discontent to bring her party back into power.

Soon, the PNP called on the International Monetary Fund and launched “one of the most challenging economic programs” it has ever undertaken, party spokesman Delano Franklyn said.

“We have brought back the country from the verge of economic collapse,” he noted. “We have put in place the necessary economic measures to grow the country in a way where all strata will be able to benefit over time.”

We have brought back the country from the verge of economic collapse.

Delano Franklyn, ruling People’s National Party spokesman

Although some analysts say most Jamaicans have yet to feel the benefits of the economic reforms, others note that investors’ confidence in the economy is back and consumers are prepared to show a little more patience.

The optimism is reflected in a poll by Don Anderson, who has been polling Jamaican elections for almost 20 years. The poll, commissioned by Radio Jamaica (RJR), was conducted last week and shows the PNP edging out the JLP to win the majority of the 63 constituencies up for grabs and keeping control of the government.

“The PNP has a good chance of being re-elected, but the opposition is obviously putting in a good fight,” Anderson said. “The PNP has more sure seats than the JLP, probably twice as many. It’s important for the JLP to win all of the marginal seats to turn around a 21-seat lead.”

And while opposition has been gaining momentum among the 1.8 million registered voters, turnout remains key. Anderson estimates that there are 11 marginal or battleground seats that are critical for a JLP upset.

The PNP recently requested that polling stations in two of these marginal seats — St. Catherine East Central and St. James North — be relocated, citing recent violence and rising tensions. The country’s elections commissioner, however, said it was too late. Last week, the Organization of American States arrived to observe the vote. Its 23-observers mission is being headed by former Bahamas Foreign Minister Janet Bostwick.

If there is a message that has come out of his poll, Anderson said, it is that despite Jamaica’s overwhelming problems and Simpson Miller’s drop in favorable rating, voters seem ready to give the charismatic 70-year-old her second consecutive term in office.

“What are the big problems? Unemployment, crime and violence. Yet when you ask people why they are voting, tradition is consistently the largest factor,” Anderson said. The PNP’s traditional support of diehard voters is double that of the JLP, he said.

Anderson noted that while the number of people eligible to vote in the country increased by 800,000 between 1980 and 2011, only 15,000 more persons voted during the same time period.

“As young people become enumerated, they really don’t go out to vote,” he said, noting that it has prevented the opposition from growing its base.

Nevertheless, the JLP is hoping to appeal to undecided voters and those in battleground constituencies on the basis of issues. Neither Holness nor party Chairman Robert Montague responded to Miami Herald requests for comments.

On the campaign trail, the opposition has chided Simpson Miller for refusing to debate Holness; accused the PNP of resorting to violence and intimidation to win the vote; and unveiled a 10-point plan to appeal to voters as it asks them whether they feel they are better off today than four years ago.

Among the proposals Holness is touting is an income-tax exemption for 18,000 Jamaicans earning below $12,383 a year. Current Finance Minister Peter Phillips has called the plan unworkable and that it runs counter to the IMF program.

Wignall says while the PNP has refused to say why it opted to call elections ahead of the December due date, he and others believe it has to do with demands the IMF is expected to make later in the year. Among them, transforming the public sector and ushering in reforms.

“The IMF wants tax reform, pension reform. It wants people to actually contribute to their pensions. The fact that it wasn’t in our laws is stupid,” Wignall said. “How can you want a pension and not contribute to it? Those are the things that are likely to come mid-year and put the PNP under tremendous pressure. They needed to get these elections out of the way.”

Five things you need to know about Jamaica’s elections

Jamaica’s austerity policy that has brought three credit updates in the past year, is hanging in the balance. Voters must decide Thursday whether to extend the rule of its chief advocate, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, or vote in the opposition Jamaica Labor Party that pledges higher spending to create more jobs.

Here’s what you need to know about the election:

▪ Among the Most Indebted

With 2.7 million people, Jamaica is the Western Hemisphere’s third-most populous Anglophone country. It’s also the most indebted, with a debt-to-gross domestic product ratio of 125 percent. The government restructured $9 billion in local debt in 2013, the second restructuring in three years. Since then, it has put austerity measures in place. Those measures have become a key campaign issue as the opposition Labor Party has pledged to cut taxes. The economy will grow 2.1 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, the fastest pace in a decade.

▪ Who’s Who

Simpson Miller, 70, became Jamaica’s first female head of government in 2006, when she assumed the post of prime minister. After losing the elections in 2007, she returned to power in 2011. Shortly after taking office, she said Jamaica should become a republic, dropping the British monarch as the official head of state. Referred to as “Mama P,” Simpson Miller’s People’s National Party is leading in the polls.

The Jamaica Labour Party is headed by Andrew Holness, 43, who briefly served as prime minister in 2011. The former education minister says he wants to establish a new Technology Innovation Fund to turn Jamaica into “the Silicon Valley of the Caribbean”, among other measures to boost growth.

▪ IMF to the Rescue?

Simpson Miller’s government took on a four-year financing package from the IMF in 2013 that came with requirements to cut debt. The government has won three credit upgrades in the past year. The IMF package expires next year and the next government will have to decide whether to request an extension, sign a new agreement or develop its own plan. Investors will be watching for signs the government will continue to cut its debt levels, which the government expects to fall to 100 percent of GDP by 2020 and 60 percent by 2025.

▪ World’s best stock market

The government can point to the performance of Jamaica’s own stock exchange and domestic bond market as signs that local investor confidence is rebounding. Last year, the stock exchange recorded the world’s best performance when it returned more than 80 percent. The government capitalized on investor demand this month when it reopened its domestic bond market, which had been frozen since 2013, and successfully raised 15 billion Jamaican dollars ($124 million) through the sale of two- to 30-year notes.

▪ China’s Role

China’s push into the Caribbean has extended to Jamaica, where it is investing in large-scale infrastructure projects, including a new $600 million toll road, known as the “Beijing Highway,” that is expected to be lined with several new luxury hotels after it opens this year. The next government will need to decide on the China Harbour Engineering Company’s proposed investment of at least $1.5 billion to help build a major shipping and logistics hub that would take advantage of the country’s proximity to the expanded Panama Canal. That plan is opposed by environmental groups, who say it would threaten a protected marine area off Jamaica’s southern coast.

By Ezra Fieser, (c) 2016, Bloomberg