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Election Upset Returns Jamaican Opposition to Power

Portia Simpson-Miller will assume her role as Prime Minister on January 5. (AP Photo)

January 04, 2012

On Tuesday, officials released the results of Jamaica’s December 29 parliamentary elections, which show a landslide victory for the opposition: the center-left People’s National Party (PNP), headed by Portia Simpson-Miller. This landslide—with the PNP beating the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) by a two-to-one margin—largely surprised analysts, who predicted a tighter race. Commentators attribute the JLP’s stunning loss to disappointment with the party, and to former JLP Prime Minister Bruce Golding’s decision to extradite Jamaican drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke to the United States in 2010. Economic problems also played a significant role; Simpson-Miller’s PNP promised supporters economic growth and job creation.

The PNP secured 42 of the 63 seats in Parliament, with the remaining 21 going to the JLP. The election returns the PNP to power after its loss in 2007, before which the party ruled Jamaica for nearly 20 years. Simpson-Miller has a long history with the PNP, having first been elected to parliament in 1976 and serving as the party’s vice president from 1978 to 2006. In 2006, she became the country’s first female head of government, when she served as prime minister for 18 months. The JLP’s defeat marks the first time Jamaican voters have not returned an incumbent political party to power since independence in 1962. The Jamaica Observer noted the election was the most peaceful in Jamaica’s history, though marked by low electoral participation, with just 48 percent of eligible voters casting ballots. In an opinion piece for Caribbean News Now, Jamaican economist Norman Girvan observed that “the PNP’s 65 percent of seats in Parliament is based on the votes of only 27 percent of Jamaica’s qualified electors.” 

The election is interpreted as a referendum on the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding, who stepped down as leader of the JLP on October 23, 2011. He was replaced by former Education Minister Andrew Holness, who served only two months as prime minister—the shortest term in Jamaican history. According to Peter Philips, a veteran Jamaican lawmaker, “Holness was unable to persuade the electorate that the Labor Party was a different party under him.” Many analysts attribute the JLP’s loss to Golding’s decision to extradite Jamaican drug kingpin Coke to the United States on drugs and arms trafficking charges in 2010. The move came after a nine-month government campaign to lobby the United States to drop the request. The Pan American Post points to voter dissatisfaction over unresolved questions about ties between Dudus and the Labor Party, suggesting Dudus helped the JLP win votes in the Tivoli Gardens neighborhood where he held sway.  Dudus’ extradition incited days of riots in Kingston, resulting in 80 deaths. “It is clear that we underestimated the devastating effect that the entire...issue had on the image of the party,’’ said Karl Samuda, a JLP leader quoted in The Miami Herald. The same article also points to a strong anti-incumbency attitude in the region, where the latest elections in Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Guyana, and St. Lucia all unseated incumbents.

Economic issues also played an important role in the turning of the political JLP’s political tide. Unemployment in Jamaica runs at approximately 12 percent—up three points from 2007—and  the country’s debt burden is around 130 percent of GDP. The 2011 GDP growth rate was an estimated 1.6 percent, following three years of economic contraction. These issues pose pressing challenges to Simpson-Miller as she assumes power on January 5. She vowed to create jobs and reestablish a pact with the International Monetary Fund, which last year approved a $1.27 billion loan to the island. “Getting sustainable growth remains the number one challenge for Jamaica,” says Girvan.
Learn More:

  • Read an AS/COA News Analysis on the violence in Kingston following the announcement of Dudus’ extradition. 
  • View election results on the Jamaica Gleaner’s Election Portal
  • Follow the two political parties on Twitter, the Jamaican People's National Party: @JamaicaPNP , and the Jamaican Labor Party: @JLPJamaica