The emphatic drubbing of Jamaica's governing party in fiercely contested national elections even astonished the triumphant opposition side, the campaign manager for the winning faction said Friday.
"We were very confident but the results certainly exceeded our most optimistic scenarios," said Peter Phillips, a veteran lawmaker who led mobilization efforts for the opposition People's National Party.
During Thursday's election, voters threw out the Jamaica Labor Party after four years in power and delivered a landslide triumph to the main opposition whose campaign tapped voter disillusionment across the island.
A final vote count is expected in coming days, but preliminary results give former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's party a dominating 41-22 seat advantage in the House of Representatives. A little more than half of the eligible 1.6 million voters cast ballots.
Previous to the election, the Labor party held 32 seats in Parliament, compared to 28 held by the People's National Party.
With the island's biggest newspaper predicting a comfortable Labor win and most opinion polls putting the two clan-like parties in a virtual dead heat, the sizable margin was a stunning defeat for Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who has led Jamaica for just two months.
In a sign that voters were chastening Holness' Labor party, they dumped some of his top Cabinet ministers, including National Security Minister Dwight Nelson and Energy Minister Clive Mullings, who lost their bids for re-election to the Parliament.
Paying off the nation's punishing debt has long forced the government to scrimp on services, and the electorate remains deeply divided.
Phillips said the People's National Party knew something was up about two weeks ago when the turnout of amped-up opposition supporters at campaign events grew in advance of a largely unpopular Christmas week vote.
The Labor party chose Holness, 39, as prime minister in October when predecessor Bruce Golding resigned amid anemic public backing. Phillips said it was a shrewd move to switch leaders, but the strategy failed to give Labor much traction. And despite promising otherwise, Holness failed to convince voters that he was an agent of change.
"What happened was that Holness was unable to persuade the electorate that the Labor Party was a different party under him," said Phillips, noting that the prime minister nominated Golding's Cabinet as his own, with a few minor tweaks.
Holness displayed a serious-minded, preachy style on the campaign trail that appeared to alienate some of his party's supporters. Jamaican voters historically focus on personalities, and blatant patronage has long been at the crux of politics.
Born to working-class parents in the impoverished city of Spanish Town, Holness regularly said he was an example of what Jamaica could hope to accomplish as a country. Such rhetoric apparently did little to inspire swing voters.
Public remarks by Labor officials suggested no hand-wringing over Holness' leadership after the election loss. The outgoing prime minister was gracious in defeat Thursday, wishing the People's National Party success for the sake of the country.
Simpson Miller has pledged to lift debt-wracked Jamaica out of poverty and create jobs but has offered few specifics. Some political analysts have said her party has been more focused on winning elections than effectively serving the population.
The People's National Party led the island for 18 years before its 2007 election loss, and Holness argued during the campaign that it mismanaged the economy, causing a steady devaluation of the Jamaican dollar and cutting deeply into the purchasing power of most wage earners.
Phillips acknowledged Friday that there will be "no quick fixes" for Jamaica, but he said Simpson Miller is committed to quickly extending a relationship with the International Monetary Fund and pushing job creation and economic growth. He predicted a jobs program at the heart of the party's platform will bear fruit.
Jamaican economist Norman Girvan said the immediate challenge facing Simpson Miller's government will be boosting the country's chronically sputtering economy and re-establishing a pact with the IMF, which last year approved a $1.27 billion loan to help the struggling Caribbean island.
"The room to maneuver is limited. A fresh austerity package is a virtual certainty," Girvan said Friday. "Getting sustainable growth remains the number one challenge for Jamaica."
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