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Facing economic woes, Jamaicans throw out ruling party

caines | 1/4/2012, 7:30 a.m.

First female prime minister returned to office

KINGSTON, Jamaica On Jamaica's rutted streets, the complaints have been chronic homeownership is out of reach for most wage earners, the cost of electricity has skyrocketed, water service regularly fizzles out and decent jobs are scarce. Fed up with chronic hard times, voters in this debt-wracked Caribbean nation on Thursday threw out the ruling party and delivered a landslide triumph to the opposition People's National Party [PNP] whose campaign energetically tapped voter disillusionment especially among the numerous struggling poor. The win marks a remarkable political comeback for former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who was Jamaica's first female leader during her year-and-a-half-long first stint in office that ended in 2007. The 66-year-old known affectionately as "Sista P" reached out to Jamaicans as a champion of the poor with a popular touch. "She cares about the ghetto people," said Trishette Bond, a 20-something resident of gritty Trench Town who wore an orange shirt and a bright orange wig, the color of Simpson Miller's slightly centre-left party, which led the island for 18 years before narrowly losing in the 2007 elections. As word of her election win emerged Thursday night, PNP supporters shimmied and shouted in the capital, Kingston, and motorists honked horns in celebration as they tore down the streets. "I am humbled as I stand before you and I wish to thank the Jamaican people for their love, for their support and for giving the People's National Party and the leader of the party her own mandate," she said, after receiving hugs from numerous candidates, some crying. Simpson Miller defeated Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who at 39 is Jamaica's youngest leader and leads the centre-right Jamaica Labor Party. Holness said the defeat will prompt a time of introspection and reflection for party leaders to examine what went wrong. "I wish the new government well. We hope for the benefit of the country that they will do a good job," said Holness, who warned during the campaign that an opposition win would scare away foreign investment and dash hopes of economic progress. Simpson Miller is beloved by her supporters for her folksy, plainspoken style. She became Jamaica's first female prime minister in March 2006 after she was picked by party delegates when P.J. Patterson retired as leader. But she was tossed out of office a year later in a narrow election defeat. This time around, she has pledged to lift debt-wracked Jamaica out of poverty, secure foreign investment and create jobs. Specifics are few, however. Her party will face deep economic problems in this island of 2.8 million people, with a punishing debt of roughly $18.6 billion, or 130 per cent of gross domestic product. That's a rate about 10 percentage points higher than debt-troubled Italy's. The two top candidates' different styles were clear while they cast their votes. Holness is largely seen as unexciting but bright and pragmatic. He whisked into the voting centre in the middle class area of Mona, barely interacting with voters. By contrast, Simpson Miller hugged and chatted with supporters at a school in Whitfield Town and told election workers to help struggling elderly voters. By David McFaddenThe Associated Press