By Horace Helps
KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaica's opposition leader fended off a challenge from his party's chief economic spokesman to retain his job on Sunday in an internal party election.
Andrew Holness, 41, leader of the center-right Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and a former prime minister, defeated Audley Shaw, one of his deputy leaders, party officials announced.
The vote came as the JLP eyes the next general election scheduled for December 2016. The campaign in this north Caribbean island of 2.8 million inhabitants had left the 70-year-old party bitterly divided, with some observers questioning how easy it will be to heal the internal wounds after the vote.
"This is a great day for the Jamaica Labour Party," Holness told thousands of cheering supporters after his victory was announced by JLP Chairman Robert Montague at Kingston's National Arena.
"I will do everything within my power to make sure that the party is reunited. We have proven that this party has the political talent that is better than any other political party in Jamaica," Holness said.
Holness captured 2,704 votes compared to 2,012 for Shaw. About 5,100 delegates were eligible to vote.
Shaw, 61, a former minister of finance, accepted defeat and pledged to work with Holness to rebuild the party that lost the December 2011 general election to the People's National Party of current Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller.
"I am ready and willing to join with you," Shaw told Holness. "This race has made the party stronger, we are energized and we can now move to work to form the next government of Jamaica," Shaw said.
Party members faced a choice between two men with different styles. Holness has faced criticism he has not been aggressive enough in taking on Simpson-Miller, while Shaw was viewed as more of an outspoken critic.
Holness served briefly as prime minister for two months from October to December 2011 when he succeeded retired Prime Minister Bruce Golding as leader of the JLP.
Apparently riding a wave of popularity, Holness called a general election a full year before it was due, but was upset by People's National Party in a December 2011 vote focused on the island's stagnant and debt-ridden economy.
Jamaica's debt load is estimated at more than 140 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund, and the country has grappled with a drop in its international reserves.
(Editing by David Adams, Kevin Gray and Eric Walsh)