- First elections since government accepted 2013 IMF package
- Prime Minister Simpson Miller and ex-PM Holness lead parties
Polls have closed in Jamaica after the first national elections since 2011 with voters weighing opposing plans for boosting a slow-growth economy weighed down by the heaviest debt load in the Americas.
More than 500,000 of the Caribbean nation’s 1.8 million registered voters had voted as of 1pm, the electoral commission said. Voters had to choose between the ruling People’s National Party, led by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, and the opposition Labour Party, headed by former Prime Minister Andrew Holness. Polls closed at 5 p.m. local time (5 p.m. EST)
One polling station in the northwest was closed following an early morning fire, according to police reports. Elsewhere, the vote was taking place largely without incident.
“The country is finally on the right track, and we need to keep it going,” said Owen Lewinson, who wore an orange t-shirt in support of the People’s National Party. Lewinson said he waited about 20 minutes to cast his ballot at a downtown Kingston polling station.
Simpson Miller, 70, has vowed to continue with austerity policies, which her government says returned the economy to health after years of economic contraction and debt crises. Holness, 43, who briefly served as prime minister in 2011, has pledged to boost growth by investing in technology, education and infrastructure. He has also called for a 32 percent increase to the minimum wage and for removing income taxes for some low and middle income families.
“For voters, this election is really a matter of selecting who will manage the economic and debt reform agenda,” said Martin Henry, a Kingston-based political analyst and newspaper columnist, in a phone interview.
Since restructuring $9 billion in local debt in 2013 and accepting an International Monetary Fund financing package, Jamaica has managed to reduce debt to 125 percent of gross domestic product, from 145 percent before the restructuring. That’s still the most in the Western Hemisphere, and the government is targeting debt at 100 percent or less of GDP by 2020.
The austerity programs have earned the country three credit ratings upgrades over the last 12 months. If the $13.9 billion economy can grow 2.1 percent this year, in line with the IMF’s forecast, that would be the fastest growth in a decade. The low growth rates have contributed to rising unemployment and poverty.
The government successfully reopened its local bond market this month, capitalizing on improving investor demand that carried the Jamaica Stock Exchange main index to a return of more than 80 percent in 2015, the world’s best performance.