February 25, 2016 / 5:13 AM / a year ago

Jamaican austerity government seeks second term, opposition vows jobs

Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller arrives at the EU-CELAC Latin America summit in Brussels, Belgium June 10, 2015.Eric Vidal

KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaica's ruling party is expected to win re-election on Thursday after the heavily indebted economy returned to growth under an IMF austerity plan, but it must overcome rising support for opposition promises of huge job creation and tax cuts.

Wearing the green and orange colours of the two main parties, voters filed into ballot stations in the capital Kingston on Thursday morning.

Most opinion polls show the ruling People's National Party (PNP) in the lead, although the margin has narrowed over the past week and the race is seen as close in many seats. Results are expected late in the day.

Despite its socialist past, under Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller the People's National Party embraced spending cuts, wage-freezes and harsh fiscal discipline as part of a $1.27 billion IMF bailout.

Simpson-Miller, 70, was Jamaica's first female head of state. During her tenure, inflation has fallen to a 48-year low. Falling oil prices have freed up government funds in the import-dependent Caribbean nation, and the island's GDP grew 1.3 percent last year, according to the World Bank.

But unemployment is high at around 13 percent overall and a whopping 38 percent for the young.

"I hope she brings more jobs and tries to build up the country," said unemployed graduate and first-time voter Tianna Williams, 18. "I'm not doing nothing right now."

At Simpson-Miller's polling station on Thursday, the prime minister was greeted with shouts of "Sister P" by throngs of orange-clad supporters and she struck a confident note.

"Tonight when I'm declared, you will smile," she said.

Dozens were hurt in a stampede when shots were fired as Simpson-Miller addressed PNP's closing rally on Tuesday, a reminder of the country's high crime. Two people were shot and killed at an opposition rally earlier this month.

Despite such incidents, the campaign has been peaceful in comparison with the bloodshed in previous decades, when hundreds died in election violence.

Andrew Holness, 43, who leads the opposition Jamaican Labour Party, briefly served as prime minister in 2011 after unrest due to the U.S. attempt to extradite drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke forced his predecessor to resign.

Holness has criticised the government's austerity and promised steep income tax cuts he says will boost the economy's still sluggish growth. His ten-point economic programme aims to create 250,000 new jobs, many in tourism and call centres.

"More jobs. That's what I'm voting for. I pray and vote because I want Andrew Holness to win," said Jacqueline Edwards, an industrial cleaner, 53, voting in Coke's former stronghold of Tivoli Gardens.

Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Michael Perry and Phil Berlowitz

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