Prime Minister Bruce Golding announced Tuesday that Jamaica's youthful education minister has received the unanimous endorsement of ruling party lawmakers to become the Caribbean island's next leader.
Golding said he will step down as prime minister on Sunday, about a month earlier than expected, to make way for Andrew Holness, the 39-year-old education minister who has consistently dominated polls asking Jamaicans who should replace the departing leader.
The 63-year-old Golding, who has called for a youthful successor, said the leadership transition will be completed on Sunday when he formally resigns and Holness will be sworn in by Jamaica's governor general in the capital of Kingston.
Golding announced in late September that he would step down once a new leader of the ruling Jamaica Labor Party is elected. The party's leader automatically becomes the prime minister.
After Golding announced that he would step down, attention immediately focused on Holness as his possible successor. He took a big step toward becoming the island's next leader earlier this month when he received the backing of a Labor parliamentary group, including several rivals.
On Sunday, Holness would become the youngest head of government in the island's history. He has promised to fight corruption, improve efficiency, and vowed the debt-wracked island would fulfill its obligations and agreements with international partners.
Holness was first elected to Parliament in 1997, at the age of 25, and was once special assistant to former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who was chief of the Labor Party until Golding took over in 2005.
The 81-year-old Seaga said his former assistant's "firm disposition" gives him the "right characteristics" for the government's No. 1 job. He urged Holness to give special focus to improving the economy, saying "until you fix that, you're really not going anywhere."
Political analysts said the selection of Holness will give the ruling party the best chance at beating the main opposition People's National Party in 2012 general elections.
"There's no question that with Golding gone and Holness in charge that will lead to a far more competitive race," said Brian Meeks, a professor of government at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies.
Many analysts believe that Holness will call general elections sooner rather than later instead of allowing harsh economic realities weigh down his early days as prime minister. The country has seen two quarters of economic growth this year, but it has been slight and average Jamaicans continue to struggle.
On Tuesday, Golding presided over his final Cabinet meeting and thanked his colleagues. During his remarks to his ministers, Golding said he "emphasized that much remains to be done to accelerate the pace of economic recovery in order to be able to tackle the country's urgent social needs.
Last year, Jamaica's towering debt and the damaging impact of the global recession forced Golding's government to seek assistance from the IMF, which helped his administration carry out a domestic debt restructuring and provided $1.27 billion in standby credits.
The island's leader since 2007 when he brought Labor back to power after 18 years in opposition, Golding and his administration have launched a crackdown on violent drug and extortion gangs that have troubled the Caribbean country for years.
Golding has suffered from anemic public backing because of his handling of the 2009 U.S. extradition request for Jamaican drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke. The prime minister's handling of the Coke case, in particular his authorization of a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the request, provoked an outcry that hobbled his political career.
Coke has since pleaded guilty to racketeering and assault charges in federal court in New York, admitting he was leader of the brutal Shower Posse gang.