Buoyed by frustrations over rising crime, a sputtering economy, and heavy debt, the Jamaica Labor Party won the country’s general elections Thursday, dealing a major upset to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and the ruling People’s National Party.
The Jamaica Labor Party won 31 seats to the PNP’s 29, according to preliminary results. With three seats outstanding, some are projecting that the final tally will be 33 to 30 in favor of the JLP.
Either way, the lead is enough to makes JLP leader Andrew Holness the country’s new prime minister after winning his own seat. He briefly served as prime minister in 2011 after his predecessor, Bruce Golding, resigned after a U.S. attempt to extradite drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke triggered unrest in West Kingston.
“We have carried a message of hope; a message that Jamaica can be a better place,” Holness, 43, said during his victory speech, looking almost surprised by the win. “This is not the end of our journey. It is the beginning of changing Jamaica.”
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Among those at the JLP’s headquarters in Kingston to congratulate Holness on restoring the party to power, was former party leader and Prime Minister Edward Seaga. During his surprised appearance, the elder statesman thanked jubilant supporters for “protecting democracy...for making sure that no party should get more than a certain number of years” in power.
Even though Simpson Miller, 70, acknowledged that the “other side won and I am going to commend them on their victory,” she did not completely concede defeat. She promised her party’s supporters that she will send “strong persons at every constituency recount when they go through the ballots.”
“Leave nothing to chance,” she added. “I know you are hurting and we feel it too.”
The upset surprised not only Simpson Miller, who was seeking a second consecutive term as prime minister, but also some political observers and pollsters who had the ruling party edging out the main opposition party.
“Has not gone the way I expected; a major shock,” said pollster Don Anderson. “A number of marginal seats were lost.”
Political commentator Herbert Gayle said during a live stream by the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper: “At the end of the day, the PNP got outfoxed.”
Preliminary results put turnout at 47.6 percent, making it one of the lowest turnouts in Jamaica’s elections history.
While a PNP former finance minister, Omar Davies, blamed the media for the low voter turnout, elections officials pushed back on claims about malfunctioning voting machines that some voters said were the reason why they didn’t cast ballots.
The concerns about voting and other irregularities caused some JLP candidates during the day to take to Twitter.
“Stay in line to let your voice be heard,” Holness, tweeted two hours before polls closed at 5 p.m. “We know it’s frustrating, but do not let this ... silence you.”
The Caribbean’s largest English-speaking country, Jamaica is also its most indebted. It has been in the care of the International Monetary Fund and in 2013 restructured $9 billion in debt. As a result of reducing its debt and various austerity programs, the country has benefited from several ratings upgrades in the past 12 months
During the campaign, each of the parties presented its own plans for boosting the stagnant economy. Simpson Miller promised to continue with an austerity program under the IMF while Holness proposed an income-tax break for 18,000 Jamaicans earning below $12,383 a year.
During the day, JLP candidates complained about isolated acts of intimidation at polling stations. For example, in St. Mary Parish, soldiers were called in to calm quarreling supporters.
Also, workers had difficulty exiting the building with ballot boxes because of intimidation.
On Wednesday, the JLP spokesman on finance, Audley Shaw, wrote to the Electoral Commission of Jamaica complaining about potential voter fraud using fake identifications.
Shaw said he had received “several disturbing reports of the existence of portable ID card making machines being used to make and distribute fake electoral ID cards, which are apparently to be used illegally by persons who will attempt to vote ... in the name of dead and migrated people who are on the voters list.”
During the vote, he called on supporters to come out in mass to overcome irregularities.
Orette Fisher, the director of elections at the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), told local newspapers that a spot check at several polling stations revealed that the electronic voting equipment was working and it was taking less than 5 minutes to cast ballots.
Earlier in the week, citing concerns over violence and rising tensions, the PNP had asked for some polling stations to be relocated. The request was denied. On Thursday, however, elections officials were forced to relocate a polling station in Hanover Parish. Police said the station was set ablaze about five hours before voting began.
Simpson Miller, who had trouble finding her polling station, cast her vote shortly after 9 a.m. at the Whitfield All Age School in her St. Andrew South West constituency. She reiterated her call for peace, saying she didn’t want any intimidation.