Jamaica election: Voters go to polls amid surge in Covid-19 cases

A boy walks in Kingston
The prime minister has heralded authorities’ success in reducing poverty

Jamaicans go to the polls on Thursday to elect a new parliament as the country grapples with a surge in coronavirus infections. Prime Minister Andrew Holness called for the early vote last month in what analysts saw as a bid to capitalize on people’s satisfaction with his economic agenda and early response to the virus. But he has faced criticism amid a rise in cases as restrictions are lifted .Face masks and temperature checks will be mandatory in polling stations. Jamaica’s parliament has 63 seats, and members are elected in a first-past-the-post system. The campaign was dominated by discussions over the economy, how to fight crime and the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Holness, a former education minister and leader of the conservative Jamaican Labour Party, has been prime minister since March 2016. The 48-year-old is hoping to gain seats from the opposition People’s National Party (PNP), led by Peter Phillips.

Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street in central London, on 17 April 2018
Andrew Holness has been prime minister since March 2016

At a televised debate on Saturday, the prime minister said 100,000 jobs had been created during his time in office while 22,000 Jamaicans had had the chance to buy their own homes. Taxes had been cut, he said, and poverty was at its lowest level in 10 years. According to the World Bank, inequality in Jamaica is lower than in most countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, but the poverty rate is still significant – 19% of the population in 2017. The pandemic is likely to affect the country’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism. Meanwhile, the prime minister has also faced criticism over high rates of crime and violence, and alleged corruption among public officials. In 2011, Mr Holness became Jamaica’s youngest prime minister at the age of 39, but governed for only 74 days after losing an election to Portia Simpson Miller, the country’s first female head of government. His wife, Juliet, is also a member of parliament and is running for a second term.

Peter Philips addresses supporters on election night on 29 December 2011 in Kingston
Peter Phillips (center) is the leader of the opposition People’s National Party (PNP)

At Saturday’s debate, Mr Phillips said his PNP was an alternative to “economic stagnation [and] major crime” and that he could offer a “future of relief from Covid-19 pressures. During the campaign, the 70-year-old said the “majority of the people and the poorest were being left behind” and that education remained an issue. After finishing a treatment against colon cancer, he declared he was “free” of the disease.

Voters must wear face masks and temperature checks will be carried out before they are let into a polling station. Upon entering, they will be required to wash or sanitize their hands. Electoral officials will also enforce social distancing measures.

Local residents swimming in the Blue Lagoon
Jamaica is heavily dependent on tourism

The country had an early success in containing Covid-19 but infections have spiked in recent weeks after borders reopened to international travellers. It has confirmed around 2,700 cases and 24 virus-related deaths, according to the health ministry. At Sunday’s debate, Mr Holness defended his decision to call the election six months ahead of schedule despite the pandemic, and rejected claims by Mr Phillips that he had ignored expert advice. The pandemic will only end when there is a vaccine. This may be a year and a half to two years, according to some experts, [and] this would be well outside the constitutional limits to call an election, he was quoted by the Jamaica Observer as saying.

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