PORTMORE, Jamaica — Another four years was needed to make it happen, but “woman time” has arrived in this Caribbean nation.
Portia Simpson Miller last week led the opposition party to victory in Jamaica’s election, positioning her to serve as prime minister for a full five-year term. With her People’s National Party capturing exactly two-thirds of the 63 seats in parliament, the outcome met the definition of a landslide and defied predictions of a close election.
Supporters had rallied around the seasoned parliamentarian known as “Sista P” by declaring in Jamaican Patois, “It’s woman time.”
Simpson Miller, 66, had served as the country’s first female prime minister for a year and a half until the 2007 election in which the Jamaica Labor Party narrowly won.
This time the ruling Jamaica Labor Party was on the defensive because of a series of corruption scandals that prompted the resignation of several government officials, including Bruce Golding, then the prime minister. The party had been out of power for 18 years before winning a majority in 2007.
Golding quit after initially rejecting an American demand that his government detain and extradite an indicted drug dealer, Christopher “Dudus” Cooke, straining diplomatic relations with the United States. In 2010, the government finally sent a massive number of police and soldiers to search for Cooke in his heavily armed gang’s territory — which Golding represented in parliament. The raid led to more than 70 deaths in Kingston, the capital.
In October, the Jamaica Labor Party selected Andrew Holness to succeed Golding. Holness, 39, became the country’s youngest prime minister. The party called an election, not due until this year, on Dec. 29 to try to capitalize on him being a fresh face untouched by scandal while serving as education minister.
A short, lively and colorful campaign followed, but the Labor’s strategy did not work.
The party appeared to run the better-financed campaign, flooding the radio airwaves with its campaign theme song, a jaunty tune that described Holness as a “young man” and urged people to “vote for Labor.”
In contrast, the People’s National Party’s faster-paced song extolled “people power” but was heard less often on air. Both parties had visibility on the ground.
Motorcades of youthful supporters clad in party colors — green for Labor; orange for the People’s Party — drove around parliamentary constituencies blowing vuvuzelas, the South African horns popularized during the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010. Large speakers mounted atop cars blasted campaign theme songs.
Both parties were particularly active in two new constituencies created in Portmore because of population growth in the suburban municipality across the harbor from Kingston.
Holness twice joined one of many campaign motorcades through the new constituency that includes the Newland neighborhood. The intense campaigning irritated some residents of the People’s Party stronghold.
After one motorcade passed, a street vendor muttered about “Laborites swarming.” Another resident dismissed it as “a caravan of thieves,” a reference to the corruption scandals, and called Holness “the cleanest of the dirty shirts.”
Candidates from the People’s Party prevailed in both new constituencies in St. Catherine parish or state. The People’s Party candidate also narrowly won in the third new constituency, in Montego Bay, the popular tourist resort.
Overall, results showed the People’s Party winning 42 seats in parliament, and Labor with 21. In the previous parliament, Labor held 32 seats, and the People’s Party 28. Voter turnout was a relatively low 52 percent, according to the Electoral Office of Jamaica.
The polls had shown inconsistent results — except that all indicated a close race.
The turning point was a televised debate the week before the election between Holness and Simpson Miller.
She conveyed a sense of confidence and displayed better debating skills from having served in parliament over four decades. He has been in parliament for 14 years but appeared tentative and unsure of himself.
Holness emphasized his relative youth as someone born after the country’s independence 50 years ago. He praised “the ingenuity and creativity of a youthful mind.” The economy has started growing a little this year, after three years of shrinkage, and Holness credited the Labor government with stabilizing the economy and creating the conditions for future growth.
Simpson Miller disagreed. And “Hopelessness is increasing under this current government,” she said in her closing statement. “Now is not the time for a government that requires a learning curve.”
No published opinion polls were conducted after the debate on Dec. 20.
One signal that the Labor Party was headed for defeat came two days before the election, when Holness used one of his last campaign appearances to utter a bitter condemnation of the People’s Party.
“Every time the JLP looks as if it is about to turn Jamaica around, here come the PNP to mash [smash] it up,” Holness said his final campaign rally, in Montego Bay.
A candidate who ends a campaign by attacking his opponent, rather than expressing a positive tone about his own virtues, usually anticipates losing the election.
The People’s Party victory marks the first time in Jamaica’s history that a ruling party has been limited to a single term in office. Holness served as prime minister a little more than two months, making his tenure in the office the second shortest in Jamaica’s history. The shortest term was held by Donald Sangster, who died in 1967 after a month and a half as head of government.
The People’s National Party has social democratic roots, but has moved toward the political center in response to globalization and related economic trends. But the party still believes in a more activist government than the pro-business Jamaica Labor Party.
The morning after the election, an unemployed young man who lives in the Newland neighborhood said even though he is a Laborite, he was happy the People’s Party won because whenever it runs the government he finds work. He hopes to find a job now.