Jamaica's governing party announced Sunday that Prime Minister Bruce Golding will step down as leader in the coming weeks, possibly averting a rebellion from ruling party members that could have led to his ouster.
Golding would resign once a new leader of the Jamaica Labor Party is elected, expected at an annual general conference in November. The party's leader automatically becomes the prime minister.
The announcement was made in a brief statement credited to Golding and the party. It said Golding informed its central executive committee of his decision at a quarterly meeting in the capital of Kingston. The 63-year-old Golding is a veteran lawmaker who was expected to lead his party into the 2012 general elections.
"(Golding) said the challenges of the last four years have taken their toll and it was appropriate now to make way for new leadership to continue the programmes of economic recovery and transformation while mobilizing the party for victory in the next general elections," the statement said.
Dennis Meadows, a senator and member of the Jamaica Labor Party's executive committee, said there has been an "overwhelming response" for Golding to stay on as party leader.
"He feels the chances of the party winning the next elections are at a disadvantage with him at the head, but there's no questioning of his competence," Meadows said.
Later in the day, party chairman Mike Henry said the central executive voted to reject Golding's decision to resign as party leader. However, Information Minister Daryl Vaz said on local radio that the decision about the prime minister's upcoming resignation was final.
Education Minister Andrew Holness, also from the Labor Party, dominated a poll conducted earlier this year asking islanders who should lead the Caribbean country if Golding were to step down.
Golding's career has been in jeopardy since 2009 because of his handling of the extradition of Jamaican drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke to the United States. Critics have slammed Golding for allowing the contracting of a law firm to lobby Washington to drop their request for extradition.
Golding resisted Coke's extradition for nine months, arguing the U.S. indictment on gun and drug trafficking charges relied on illegal wiretap evidence. Golding's Parliament district included Coke's West Kingston slum stronghold.
The stance strained relations with Washington, which questioned Jamaica's reliability as an ally in the fight against drug trafficking.
When Golding finally agreed to send Coke to the U.S., a hunt for the fugitive led to days of fighting in May 2010 that killed at least 73 civilians and three security officers. Coke was captured about a month later and extradicted.
Last month, Coke pleaded guilty to racketeering and assault charges, admitting his leadership of the brutal Shower Posse gang. He is due to be sentenced in December.
The Coke controversy prompted Golding to offer his resignation last year, but it was rejected by his party.
Peter Phillips, a spokesman for the main opposition People's National Party, asserted that the ruling party's announcement was brought on by the Coke saga, one of the bloodiest episodes in Jamaica's recent history, and the government's inability to fix the island's poor economy.
"I think it is reflective of the low standing the prime minister has amongst the Jamaican people. His credibility was destroyed in the Christopher Coke fiasco," Phillips said during a Sunday phone interview.
From its national executive council gathering in the northern city of Montego Bay, the People's National Party called on Golding to immediately call general elections "to resolve the crisis of governance in the country."
Golding, the son of a successful businessman who also served in Parliament, returned his party to power in 2007 after 18 years in opposition.
Last year, he vowed to crush street gangs and replace their strong-armed rule with social programs for the poor. While security forces have since launched a sustained crackdown on gangs that has resulted in decreases in homicides and other crimes, Jamaica's sprawling underclass is still struggling.
Golding has repeatedly denied any ties to Coke, and even resigned from the Labor Party in the mid-1990s to form a new party that would be free of gang links. He rejoined Labor in 2002.
Political observers say Golding could not have been elected to his parliament seat without the support of Coke, the former don of Tivoli Gardens, which has a long-standing reputation as a vote-rich stronghold for the Jamaica Labor Party. Coke also thrived under the opposition People's National Party, which led the island for nearly two decades before Labor's 2007 win.
Associated Press writer Howard Campbell contributed to this story.