Youthful lawmaker Andrew Holness was sworn in Sunday as Jamaica's new prime minister, ushering in a government he said would heal political divisions, root out corruption, reduce debt and bureaucracy and attract foreign investment to reduce poverty.
The 39-year-old Holness took the oath of allegiance to his country in front of about 4,000 people gathered on the lawns of King's House, the residence of Jamaica's governor-general. He became the youngest leader in Jamaica's history and completed a seamless power transition for the governing Jamaica Labor Party, which had been weakened by internal squabbles.
Holness took over from Bruce Golding, who stepped down Sunday after four years as prime minister in which his popularity sagged over his nine-month opposition to a U.S. extradition request for a notorious gang leader in 2009 and 2010. Holness, who had been education minister, will lead the party into general elections that must be held by December 2012.
Golding shocked many Jamaicans when he announced in late September that he would resign once a new party chief was elected, saying that "the last four years have taken their toll and it was appropriate now to make way for new leadership."
Labor Party lawmakers unanimously chose Holness as their party's leader, and he automatically became prime minister.
Holness vowed to "conscientiously and impartially" serve all Jamaicans during an hourlong speech and pledged to ease the island's poverty by increasing access to education, creating meaningful jobs and ending "garrison politics," a reference to populist alliances with gang leaders in vote-rich slums.
"Jamaica is yearning, crying out, for a new politics to emerge," Holness said to applause. "Criminals must never be seen by the community as protectors."
But Holness could face a challenge cutting politicians' ties to such extralegal figures and uniting people fed up with Jamaica's divisive two-party political system. Previous prime ministers, including Golding, have made similar vows.
Golding lost support due to his handling of a 2009 U.S. extradition request for Jamaican drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke. Many Jamaicans were upset that Golding authorized a U.S. firm to lobby Washington to drop the request, and the leader reversed course and ordered a bloody offensive against Coke's supporters in his slum stronghold.
Holness also addressed one of the most dire issues facing the country, its crushing debt burden, which comprises 132 percent of Jamaica's annual gross domestic product. He vowed to fulfill the government's obligations with its international partners, including a $1.27 billion standby loan secured from the International Monetary Fund last year.
"We are very close to once and for all breaking this vicious debt cycle. If we complete the program and stick to our plan, we would be able to moderate our expenditure, increase our revenue, and as a result reduce our debt," he said.
Jamaica's economy has expanded in recent months, growing at an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the second quarter of the year, above an initial estimate of 1.5 percent.
Born to working class parents in the southern city of Spanish Town, Holness earned a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in development from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica before becoming a lawmaker at age 25. He was a protege of former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, serving as his special assistant from 1996 to 2000.
During his tenure as education minister, the island saw rising literacy rates and a national education trust was founded to raise money for new schools and infrastructure and relieve the country's overcrowded high schools. He said he will keep the education portfolio as prime minister.
Holness has described himself as both "pro-business" and "pro-people" and has said he hopes to ease the island's severe poverty by creating jobs and improving access to education. He has called for a "new era of responsibility" that can fight chronic crime and poverty problems in this middle-income country.