Vote Count Starts in Jamaica to See Who’ll Lead the Recovery

Vote counting has started in Jamaica’s general election to determine who’ll steer the island through its deepest slump in decades, after the pandemic torpedoed one of the biggest success stories in emerging markets.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, 48, is seeking a second term with his Jamaican Labour Party pledging to make the central bank independent and keep a tight control on spending.

He’s facing former Finance Minister Peter Phillips, 70, whose People’s National Party, or PNP, has called for more health care spending and a higher minimum wage for tourism workers. The PNP has also said it will officially recognize Rastafarianism, a belief system that originated in Jamaica in the 1930s, as an indigenous religion, and earmark lands for Rastafarian settlements.

Voters were required to wear masks, and had their temperatures checked and hands sanitized before being allowed into voting stations.The electoral authority said voting went smoothly despite tighter health regulations, though as of 2pm turnout had been less than 40%.

Polls closed 5pm local time, and those isolated due to Covid-19 were be allowed to vote in the final hour. Preliminary results are expected late Thursday.

Jamaica has undergone one of the world’s most dramatic turnarounds in recent years, slashing debt to 93% of gross domestic product from a peak of 146% eight years ago, welcoming Chinese investment in highways and other projects, cutting unemployment to a record low and introducing inflation-targeting. The nation’s dollar bonds have returned the most in emerging markets over the last ten years.

Holness looks set to reap the rewards, even though Phillips can claim some of the credit as Finance Minister in the previous administration, from 2012 to 2016.

“It would be a gigantic shock for most people if the JLP loses,” said Kevin O’Brien Chang, a local businessman and political analyst.

Public works projects, and a forceful response to the pandemic are buoying Holness’ popularity, he said. Most polls show the JLP winning a majority of seats in the 63-seat parliament.

Severe Downturn

Whoever wins will need to guide the nation of nearly 3 million though the economic crisis, after lockdown measures to curb Covid-19 have throttled the economy, while travel restrictions left hotels and beaches empty.

Gross domestic product will plunge 7% to 10% this year, according to the central bank, which would be the biggest drop since at least 1980.

The stock market is down 36% in dollar terms so far in 2020, the worst performer among more than 90 primary indices tracked by Bloomberg. Over the preceding decade it provided the best returnson the planet.

And while the nation has got debt under control, it has yet to decisively escape from three decades of sluggish growth which have seen Jamaica fall far behind Caribbean peers such as the Dominican Republic.

After Holness took office in 2016, he said he’d able to get the economy growing at annualrates of 5% within four years. So far he hasn’t come close. Annual growth hasn’t exceeded 1.9% during his four-year term, and last year the economy expanded just 1%.

Austerity measures to curb debt took a toll on growth, while droughts, storms and the nation’s high crime rate are also drags on the economy, said Marla Dukharan, a Trinidadian economist who produces the Caribbean Economic Report.

Although growth has been anemic, its still better than the nation has seen for years, said Diana Thorburn, an analyst at the Caribbean Policy Research Institute, a Kingston-based think-tank.

Before the pandemic, “there was a general mood that things were looking up,” she said.

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