Nearly five years after becoming his nation’s youngest prime minister — only to lose the job two months later in an election — Andrew Holness returned to the helm of Jamaica’s government Thursday.
Holness, 43, was sworn in on the grounds of Governor General Sir Patrick Allen’s official Kingston residence, saying he intends to lead a government of partnership to grow Jamaica’s debt-ridden economy, reduce its rising crime rate and tackle high unemployment.
Pledging to serve faithfully, he called on Jamaicans at home and abroad to help him take the country of 2.7 million from poverty to prosperity.
“I am under no illusion as to the meaning of this mandate,” Holness said during his 23-minute inaugural address. “We have not won a prize. Instead, the people are giving us a test.”
The ceremony was both symbolic and historical.
Holness, who used social media to get voters to stand in line on election day and sell the party’s tax relief program, is his generation’s first post-independence Jamaican leader. His wife, Juliet Holness, is also a newly elected member of parliament. Her victory marks only the second time since 1980 that a husband-wife duo will serve in parliament.
Holness’ oath of office came a week after the Jamaica Labor Party dealt a major upset to former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s People’s National Party. The narrow victory, 32 to 31 seats in parliament, was a rare defeat for the left-leaning PNP, which had been in power for 22 out of the past 26 years.
The narrow victory and record low voter turnout of about 47 percent symbolized the significant numbers of Jamaicans who have lost hope in the country’s politics, which Holness alluded to during his speech.
“With this mandate, there is no majority for arrogance; there is no space for selfishness; there is no place for pettiness; there is no room for complacency and there is no margin for error,” he said.
Even as the JLP hopes to pick up another seat in an ongoing magisterial recount, its narrow majority creates uncharted waters and has some political observers predicting an early return to the polls if the new government and opposition can’t find a way to collaborate.
“Both sides concede that it will be very difficult to govern,” pollster Don Anderson said. “It’s not impossible, but members of parliament can hardly afford to go to the bathroom.”
Noting that political paralysis can be avoided, former Sen. Trevor Munroe said both Holness and Simpson Miller must work to rebuild confidence and trust in the country’s governance while also growing the economy.
“It’s not just Holness, but the entire Jamaica governance class faces a huge challenge now,” said Munroe, a political scientist. “We can tackle this if the right steps are taken initially and the tax reform issues are addressed in a consensual way that we can make an opportunity out of this adversity.”
Munroe, like others, believes that the dismal state of the economy and widening disparity gap between the wealthy “one percent and the rest of the population,” is what propelled voters who did cast ballots to return Holness after the party’s 2011 defeat.
“Just drive around Kingston and you can see the evidence of affluence on the one hand and the affect of austerity on the other hand, on the rest of the population,” he said. The austerity program, implemented by the International Monetary Fund, was one of the strictest in the world, Munroe said.
“We lived up to it,” he said. “However, people need to get a break.”
Holness agreed said Jamaica will continue with it IMF economic program, but must now build on the partnership to achieve inclusive growth and job creation.
“We are not naive about the challenges we face regarding our debt and the need to maintain fiscal discipline,” he said.
Achieving this means building partnerships with everyone from the the opposition to the private sector to the people of Jamaica, Holness said.
The new government, he added, will continue its policy of tuition-free education and no user fee access to healthcare. It will also make it easy for Jamaicans in South Florida and elsewhere in the diaspora “to participate in the development of their homeland.”
But Jamaicans must also play their part.
“You must be responsible and send your children to school. Our men must take care of their children, and couples must be responsible in having the children they can afford,” he said. “Our government commits to creating the environment in which families can flourish and form communities of social mobility from which every ghetto youth can be star. However, every family member must do his or her part by being personally, socially and economically responsible.”
Echoing Allen, who paid homage to Simpson Miller, Holness also acknowledged her contributions to the country. A nine-time elected member of parliament, Simpson Miller has led the country through one of its most difficult economic periods.
“As much as possible, we should hold hands in cooperation to overcome obstacles for the good of the country,” he said. “I still believe it is a useful symbol of national unity for the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to appear together in zones of political exclusions. I again extend the invitation.”