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Job of Jamaica's youngest prime minister ever is up for grabs

Jamaica heads to the polls today in a vote that will decide whether it's youngest prime minister, Andrew Holness, stays on.

By Staff writer / December 29, 2011

Electoral workers review voter lists outside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kingston, Jamaica, Thursday. Jamaica is holding 63 parliamentary races where Prime Minister Andrew Holness' Jamaica Labour Party is in a tight race against the People's National Party, headed by former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, to win control of the government for the next five years.

Collin Reid/AP

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Andrew Holness is already Jamaica’s youngest prime minister. Could he also become the nation’s shortest-serving?

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That “first” is up for grabs in today’s race in the Caribbean nation, as he faces opposition leader Portia Simpson Miller, in what is essentially a dead heat.

Both candidates, from the two major parties – the Labor Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP) – are attempting to blame the other for economic woes that have turned Jamaica, the third largest Caribbean nation, into one of the world’s most indebted.

Once one of the world’s largest sugar producers in the 1800s, this nation – known for its reggae and more recently the deadly violence over the extradition of gang leader Christopher "Dudus" Coke – faces about $18.6 billion in debt, more than 120 percent of its GDP. Unemployment sits at nearly 13 percent.

Prime Minister Holness has only been in office since October, after his predecessor Bruce Golding resigned. "Jamaicans are now safer, our economy is stable with a solid foundation for job creation," the 30-something Holness said before the race.

Ms. Simpson Miller, who was born into a ghetto in Kingston and is known as “Sista P,” is the more charismatic of the two leaders and says she is more in touch with the nation’s poor. She served briefly as prime minister in 2006 and 2007, also as another “first”: Jamaica’s first female prime minister.

Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith, provost and professor of political science at York College of The City University of New York, says that the dead heat is due, in part, to a lack of distinctive ideological polarization between the two main parties. As the two dominant ones, both parties are also well-oiled, with veteran operatives and strong bases of support.

No matter who wins today’s race, the next leader will struggle under the debt and likely be forced to undertake unpopular measures, such as layoffs in the public sector.

Jamaica is most well-known for its tourism. But it moved into the international spotlight after former Prime Minister Golding, in a backtrack, agreed to extradite Mr. Coke to the US on drug-trafficking charges. Seventy-six people were killed as authorities faced Coke’s supporters in the slum where he was hiding out. Jamaica’s gangs have long influenced the political system in so-called “garrison politics” in Jamaica, receiving immunity from politicians in exchange for votes.

The Coke saga could hurt Holness’s bid today, but he might have the upper hand, says Professor Griffith. “Notwithstanding the economic situation, for which they mostly are not responsible, the crime situation has improved appreciably, and tourism has been in a growth mode.”

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