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Last Updated: Friday, 31 August 2007, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
Jamaica set for wide-open poll
By Debbie Ransome
Head, BBC Caribbean Service

When Hurricane Dean blew through Jamaica nearly two weeks ago, the storm did not just blow down trees, rip off roofs and batter the country's infrastructure. The hurricane also blew the country's election timetable off course.

Winds bent  by Hurricane Dean
Hurricane Dean caused widespread damage and disruption

The authorities imposed a state of emergency, initially for a month, to "protect life and property" from criminals, and the electoral commission announced that the general election set for 27 August was being postponed.

Speculation mounted for five days until the new date, 3 September, was announced, and the state of emergency lifted.

On paper, Jamaica is an island of a mere 2.7 million people which produces bauxite, garments and sugar.

But to leave it at that would be to underestimate the profile of a country which has always punched above its weight culturally.

Jamaica is probably best known throughout the world for the sharp contrast between its positive and negative extremes.

On the positive side, its cultural impact on the world has been as the originator of reggae, a style of music that has now become an unstoppable global force.

Its rise has been accompanied by iconic images of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and the Rastafarian religion.

But it is the negative image that shames and angers most Jamaicans, at home and abroad - that of political and criminal violence.

'Garrison politics'

The previous five elections have passed off relatively peacefully. However, memories of the late 1970s and, in particular, the 1980 general election campaign still remain uppermost for observers of Jamaica's political process.

Bruce Golding
Opposition leader Bruce Golding is an experienced politician

In 1980, an extended eight-month election campaign was blighted by more than 800 murders.

The island's two main parties, the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), have made it clear during recent polls that the events of that year must never be repeated.

Jamaica's main political parties do have passionate support from their followers.

In the former days of so-called "garrison" politics, it would have been dangerous to wander into a JLP "garrison" - that is, a constituency with loyal party supporters - wearing the colour of the PNP. Jamaicans will proudly tell you today that those days are past.

At the last poll in 2002, after there had been concerns about possible violence in several constituencies, Jamaica's Electoral Advisory Committee called in the relevant candidates and threatened to postpone the vote in their constituencies if any "garrison" politics continued.

'Populist'

For this campaign, the electoral commission banned the staging of political meetings and motorcades in the troubled constituencies of West St Thomas and South-East St Elizabeth.

Portia Simpson Miller
Portia Simpson Miller is seeking to win her own mandate

The ban was supported by the JLP and the PNP candidates in these areas.

But it created a challenge for Jamaica's first woman prime minister Portia Simpson-Miller, known locally as "Sista P".

Her populist style of campaigning and her declaration of a seven-week campaign at a rally on 8 July led to opposition concerns that this could lead to a return of political violence.

However, her critics quietened down when it became clear that no such violent backlash was coming.

This doesn't mean that Jamaica can ignore its serious problems with murder and crime figures. Murders went down by 20% in 2006 compared with the previous year, but that still meant that 1,300 people met violent deaths.

Wide open

The general election pits the skills of "Sista P" against the "safe pair of hands" image of main opposition JLP leader Bruce Golding.

Ms Simpson Miller was appointed by then-prime minister PJ Patterson in March 2006.

The PNP has enjoyed four successive terms in office with this strategy - PJ Patterson was, in his turn, the anointed successor of the charismatic Michael Manley, who stepped down during his term in office in 1992.

Interestingly, PJ Patterson had beaten off Ms Simpson Miller's bid for the PNP leadership when Mr Manley stepped down in 1992.

Last year, Ms Simpson Miller's turn did arrive, but she is now keen to get her own mandate from the Jamaican people.

She faces a close race, however, with the JLP, which has been campaigning unofficially for months, giving the ruling PNP a run for its money on the campaign and public debating trail.

Latest polls show that 40% of Jamaicans remain undecided, leaving the election much more wide open than under the garrison politics of the past. Voters will be very much making up their minds on the day.


SEE ALSO
Gang politics 'over' in Jamaica
28 Aug 07 |  Americas
Storm forces Jamaican poll delay
22 Aug 07 |  Americas
Jamaica struggles to fight crime
16 May 07 |  Americas
'I am seen as a symbol of hope'
15 Jun 06 |  Americas
Jamaica gets first woman leader
31 Mar 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Jamaica
02 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Jamaica
13 Jul 07 |  Country profiles

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