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Where will Holness take Jamaica?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

“I’ve already promised to eat my sweaty football sock if the JLP win,” said a Jamaica journalist on Tuesday.

On Thursday night, he was checking out recipes. The Jamaica Labour Party took 33 of the 63 seats. Prime minister-elect Andrew Holness pondered which suit and tie to wear for the swearing-in.

Most Jamaicans had expected an easy win for Portia Simpson Miller’s People’s National Party government, despite the rigours of an IMF-backed austerity programme.

Jamaican pollsters gave the PNP a narrow lead during the short campaign; but T&T’s Derek Ramsamooj bucked the trend, putting the JLP 3.6 points ahead in 13 marginal seats, 11 of which it won on Thursday—with a somewhat wider overall margin.

Nationally, Holness had the narrowest of wins. The JLP took just 50.1 per cent of the popular vote, with 49.8 per cent for the PNP. Last time round, the JLP took 46.6 per cent. Worryingly, voter turnout was down slightly.

The PNP was vulnerable to this small swing because it held a set of marginal seats. In 2011, it won seven seats with less than 51 per cent of the vote, and nine more with less than 55 per cent. That is where the JLP made its 12 gains.

The PNP held firm in its urban garrisons. Portia won her usual 94 per cent in South Western St Andrew. 

So who is Andrew Holness? And will he change Jamaica? 

He was education minister for four years in Bruce Golding’s government from 2007. He was briefly prime minister when Bruce stepped down in October 2011, losing a hastily-called election to Portia Simpson Miller at the close of that year.

Now 43, he is a generation younger than the old-guard in both parties, who cut their political teeth in the 1970s, when Jamaica was torn apart by ideologically driven gang warfare between PNP and JLP. 

His wife, Juliet, won a former PNP seat with a comfortable majority; she is likely to be a key figure in the new Cabinet. Shades of Hazel Manning and Janet Jagan? Maybe.

Young does not always mean open-minded. Guyana’s Bharrat Jagdeo was just 35 when he took office. He proved as narrowly partisan as his elderly predecessors.

But some see reasons for hope. A seasoned public servant says that when Holness called a meeting as education minister, he listened, unlike most politicians. Says a journalist: “He remembers who you are. He engages with you.” 

Less kindly, another on the media circuit finds him “slimy”. You can’t win them all.

Portia shunned the media. As prime minister, she gave no press conferences. At her best, her energy connected direct to voters on the stump; but her party looked arrogant and complacent. 

In the world of social media, mass rallies of the faithful no longer cut it. A taunt about her “elitist” young opponents spawned a hashtag #ArticulateMinority.

Holness has a more measured style. Like one-in-eight Jamaicans and the governor-general Sir Patrick Allen, he is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist. So don’t look to him for even a breath of reform to Jamaica’s repressive social policies. 

And the economy? Jamaica must pass a budget in March. That’s an even tighter time frame than Keith Rowley and Colm Imbert faced last year. 

Like Colm and Keith, Holness and his new finance minister face pressures. In its December review, the IMF called for “high quality and durable measures to lower the wage bill.” With salary increases last year, that means firing people.

The alternative would be a “further squeeze” on current and capital spending.

In his election campaign, Holness promised 250,000 new jobs. But he didn’t give a time frame for that promise. 

He promised to abolish income tax for 75 per cent of those who now pay it. If he does that in this budget, it will almost certainly blow the IMF targets.

Andrew Holness is not stupid. He won’t start his second term in office by picking a fight with the IMF. And the IMF won’t want to break with Jamaica unless they absolutely have to.

The IMF programme runs to May 2017. Between now and that date, there will be some tough behind-scenes talking. Given skill and will on both sides, the programme can hold.

The next IMF test is in mid-March. With luck, that’s before the budget. Most of the groundwork has been done by Portia’s finance minister Peter Phillips. After that, there’s a test in mid-June. That will be the one to watch.

There’s a little wriggle room. Friday’s US$34 oil price tells a good story for oil importers like Jamaica. Tourist arrivals look fairly good. Bauxite is in trouble, but that’s nothing new. 

We’re likely to see some pain in the March budget, but Holness can blame his predecessors. 

But the income-tax promise is the one to watch. Pre-election, we were told that it’s affordable right now. But it seems ill thought out, and full of anomalies. Holness could say that it still stands—but it’s not for now, it’s for the full five-year term. If so, he too could be eating sock soup.


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