By Howard Campbell
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
KINGSTON, Jamaica _ The prime minister of Jamaica fought to keep her job Thursday as voters chose a new Parliament amid high crime and unemployment in the largest English-speaking country in the Caribbean.
Pre-election polls predicted a close contest between the ruling People’s National Party of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party.
Simpson Miller predicted her party would retain power in the 63-seat Parliament as she urged voters to remain calm in a country that has seen election day violence in the past.
“I want no intimidation. I want no trouble. I want everybody to go out and cast their vote in peace,” she said while voting in her Kingston constituency.
There were long lines at polling stations across the country.
Police said arsonists set fire to a polling station in Hanover Parish on the island’s northwest corner before dawn. Voting was moved to another location and no other major incidents were reported.
Simpson Miller became the country’s first female leader in 2006. That first term ended in 2007, but she returned as prime minister in 2011 amid a shrinking economy and one of the highest levels of debt relative to GDP in the world. Her government negotiated a $930 million aid package with the IMF.
The Jamaican dollar has declined, the cost of living has gone up and wages have been stagnant. The IMF, however, has praised the government for cutting debt and making other reforms to its economy and the country’s stock market was rated among the best performing in the world last year.
“It makes no sense we stop the progress now,” said 59-year-old voter Herbert Hall. “We’ve made a lot of progress with the economy and development. It would be chaos if we change now.”
The opposition, led by Andrew Holness, expected a far better showing than in 2011, when it was swept out by a 2-1 margin. “You are going to see a far more energized Jamaica Labor Party base than in 2011 because our members have been motivated by the issues we have raised in our campaign,” Holness said.
The opposition leader has pledged to make the economy more dynamic with income tax changes and other measures, a message that resonates with many in a country with widespread poverty and a youth unemployment rate above 30 per cent.
“I’m voting for change,” said 72-year-old Velma Johnson as she waited to cast her ballot. “Wages are frozen and there’s a lot of arrogance about this government.”
Many Jamaicans are also fed up with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, mostly blamed on gangs. The country had at least 1,192 slayings in 2015, a roughly 20 per cent increase from the previous year. By comparison, Chicago, which has roughly the same population as Jamaica at 2.7 million, had 468 killings in the same period.