December elections for Jamaica

2011-12-05 15:34

Kingston - Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced on Sunday that general elections will be held in this island nation on December 29, a year ahead of a constitutional deadline and in the thick of the crucial winter tourist season.

Elections were due by December 2012, but Holness said the Caribbean island's international partners and lenders needed to know before the end of the year if voters will give him a mandate to govern Jamaica for the next five years.

"Business people are confident in this government," Holness asserted on Sunday night at a packed rally in the central town of Mandeville.

The 39-year-old Holness gave credit to his ruling Jamaica Labor Party for providing political leadership since the 2007 elections, laying a path for reforms and improving the debt-swamped island's economic performance after 18 years of opposition rule.

He was sworn in as prime minister on October 23 and quickly said he would root out corruption, reduce debt and bureaucracy, attract foreign investment and fight poverty. He's also called for an end to links between politicians and slum bosses in vote-rich ghettos.

His predecessor, Bruce Golding, stepped down in October after four years as prime minister when his popularity sagged due to his nine-month opposition to a US extradition request for a notorious gang leader. Labor Party lawmakers unanimously chose Holness as their party's leader, and he automatically became prime minister.

Jamaica is "ready for a positive future," Holness told tens of thousands of partisans wearing the governing party's trademark green as he called the vote.

The winner of the December 29 election will face deep economic problems on this island of 2.8 million people. Jamaica's debt stands at roughly $18.6 billion.

Jamaica's economy has been on a meager upswing, but roughly 60% of government spending still goes to debt and another 30% pays wages. That leaves just 10 percent for education, health, security and other parts of the budget.

The Sunday night gathering bristled with a festive feel as cheering, horn-honking caravans of Labor supporters celebrated in the streets, waving banners and dancing to reggae tunes pounding out of big speakers.

What remains unclear is how most voters in this heavily Christian nation will react to general elections coming so close to Christmas Day.

Holness' move comes as he navigates his government's first major controversy, with anti-corruption agencies investigating a troubled government program and agency for alleged mismanagement of a stalled $400 million roadwork programme financed by China.

In recent days, the CEO of the National Works Agency and Holness' transport and works minister have stepped down in the wake of the scandal.

Holness has assumed responsibility for the troubled project and said no new work orders will be issued for the program until an independent review is finished.

In a televised speech on Saturday night, Holness vowed that his government will launch a forensic audit of the infrastructure program and publicly release its findings. He said he was aware the controversy "can create public alarm and disgust."

Portia Simpson Miller, chief of the opposition People's National Party, said Holness' pledge for a forensic audit is disingenuous and "too little too late."

Her party has unveiled its candidates for all 63 constituencies and says it is ready for elections.