, KINGSTON, Dec 30 – Jamaicans turned out en masse Thursday amid worries about high unemployment, crime and corruption on the tourism-dependent island, with their young prime minister’s job on the line in a tight election.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness, at 39 the youngest person ever to lead the laid-back, palm-fringed former British colony of just under three million, is the standard-bearer of the center-right Jamaica Labor Party (JLP).
His rival, Jamaica’s first female prime minister and the leader of the left-leaning People’s National Party (PNP), Portia Simpson Miller, is seeking a return to the helm four years after narrowly losing her re-election bid.
Monitors reported long lines of voters in some districts, mainly due to technical problems with the voting machines.
But while previous Jamaican elections have been marred by violence, Thursday’s voting got off to a mainly smooth start.
“We have had reports from some supervisors who say things are going smoothly while there are others who say the machines are slow. But slow is relative because some persons just don’t want to wait,” Director of Elections Orette Fisher was quoted as saying in the Jamaica Observer.
Over 1.6 million voters — 75 percent of registered voters — in the 63 constituencies were projected to have cast their ballots by the time polls closed at 5:00 pm (2200 GMT) and results were expected three hours later. The last elections in 2007 saw lower turnout, at 60 percent.
While vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of the capital Kingston urging people to vote for either the JLP or the PNP, a clear violation of laws prohibits such last-minute propaganda, the proceedings were largely orderly.
Police reported a shooting in the Saint Catherine constituency in the country’s southeast, but no one was hurt and the suspect was arrested in an incident officials did not believe to be politically motivated.
In the eastern parish of Portland, a 70-year-old farmer collapsed and died just after casting his vote, local media reported.
Residents provided their own security at the polls in the PNP stronghold of Trench Town, a local gang member said.
With Holness and Simpson Miller both predicting victory, throngs of supporters dressed in party colors were seen celebrating in some sections of western Jamaica.
In Trenchtown, a Kingston PNP bastion, voters flooded polling stations dressed in orange T-shirts, the color of the opposition party. Shops there were closed for two hours to allow employees to vote.
Polls conducted by Don Anderson — who has correctly called the last three elections here — showed the opposition PNP marginally ahead up to late last week, but most pollsters say the race is too close to call.
On Tuesday, the island’s oldest newspaper, the Gleaner, gave the nod to JLP by 34 constituencies to 29.
Holness assumed office on October 23 when Bruce Golding stepped down under pressure.
Golding, who led the JLP to victory in 2007 ending 17 straight years of PNP rule, resigned in the political fallout from the government’s fight against the extradition to the United States of Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke, reportedly the former leader of the Shower Posse, a JLP-tied gang.
When authorities moved on some of Kingston’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas in May 2010, a massive operation left 76 Jamaicans dead. The gang’s link to the JLP has hurt its sway in poor areas still traumatized by the incident.
“My grandfather voted JLP, my father voted JLP, and I have always voted JLP, but I lost three children in May 2010, so for me now it’s PNP or nothing,” a resident of Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston told AFP.
Simpson Miller, 66, was in the western end of the island this week, campaigning via helicopter to shore up two key constituencies.
When campaigning officially ended at midnight Tuesday, gunfire rang out at a JLP event in Westmoreland. One party supporter was killed and two others were wounded, authorities said. Both candidates condemned the violence.
While police have cited figures showing a decline in violent crimes such as murder, voters remain deeply concerned over street crime, as well as jobs and corruption in the public sector.