Latin America & Caribbean

Jamaica set for change as Holness takes over as PM

Andrew Holness with schoolchildren
Image caption Andrew Holness has proved very popular as education minister

2012 will be a special year for Jamaica as the Caribbean island marks its 50th anniversary as an independent country.

The memories of being a British colony have long since faded but until now it has always been led by people born before the birth of the nation.

Sunday marks a changing of the guard, as the current Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, 62, steps down and hands over to 39-year-old Andrew Holness, who has been the country's education minister.

It is a meteoric rise to power for Mr Holness, who will be the island's ninth and youngest prime minister.

Barely a month ago, this seemed almost unthinkable.

Mr Golding had led the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to power in 2007 after 18 years in opposition by narrowly beating the People's National Party (PNP) at the polls.

His election slogan was "Jobs, jobs, jobs", a promise that was hard to keep during the global economic crisis.

Shock resignation

Jamaica, one of the most indebted countries in the world, had to secure a debt restructuring deal with the IMF (International Monetary Fund).

But despite Mr Golding's low approval ratings and the party trailing in the opinion polls, it seemed likely that he would continue to lead until the elections which are due by December 2012.

Image caption Mr Golding was placed in a difficult position over the Coke extradition

So it was a shock when Mr Golding announced in an address to the nation on 25 September that he was stepping down.

He said it was time for younger leadership of the party.

Mr Golding also said the "challenges" of the last four years had "taken their toll", making it clear that questions over how he had handled the extradition of a Jamaican drug lord was a major part of his decision.

In August 2009, the US requested the extradition of Christopher "Dudus" Coke on drug and gun running charges.

For nine months, Mr Golding opposed the request, saying it was based on illegal wiretap evidence.

Coke had a huge amount of support in the prime minister's own constituency of West Kingston, an area that is fiercely loyal to the JLP.

The stalling of extradition proceedings was seen by some as evidence that Mr Golding was unwilling to tackle the issue because of the damage it would do to the party and his chances of re-election.

Ties with the US were strained and faced with mounting pressure, Mr Golding eventually signed an arrest warrant.

Coke's supporters barricaded themselves inside the community of Tivoli Gardens; an assault to regain the streets by the security forces left dozens dead.

After his arrest and extradition, Coke pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.

To the international community it seemed as if Mr Golding had played politics in allowing a criminal to remain free.

To those loyal to Coke, the JLP leader had let them down and was unlikely to get the votes needed to win in his previously safe seat.

New generation

With Mr Golding at the helm, the opposition has been able to score political points. So by stepping down now, the prime minister has given his party a fighting chance of winning a second term.

In the past, the Jamaica Labour Party has all but destroyed itself with bitter infighting and personal ambition at the expense of party unity, but this time it did not happen.

As commentators started to look for front runners in the leadership contest they all seemed to fall back in support of one man: Andrew Holness.

As education minister, he has been hugely popular and represents a distinct move away from the generation that practised what is known as "garrison politics" - where the main parties and the criminal bosses worked together to shore up support, often by force.

Unlike Mr Golding's West Kingston seat, Mr Holness' constituency of West Central St Andrew is not inextricably linked to the politics of the past.

However, there is speculation that he may take over Mr Golding's seat, a move that could be seen as a step backwards.

Some analysts believe Mr Holness can help to energise the country's youth and get them more interested in politics.

Ahead of taking over, Mr Holness has been to Washington to meet some of Jamaica's most important allies and reassure them that his government will keep to agreements put in place by the previous government.

Image caption Jamaicans will be hoping for plenty to celebrate in 2012

Jamaica is constitutionally bound to hold an election by December 2012.

It was thought the JLP, which was in power when the union flag was lowered for the last time in 1962, would try to use the likely bounce in patriotic fervour after the independence anniversary to help them at the polls.

But in what looks like a deft political move, Mr Holness may try to use his honeymoon period in office to call an early election.

He has sworn that he will avoid the partisanship that has crippled Jamaican politics, but such pledges have been made before. Mr Golding made similar comments before he became prime minister.

Jamaica has undergone much change since gaining independence nearly 50 years ago.

The Bauxite industry that was booming when the British left is in decline. And when Mr Holness takes office finding solutions to the country's difficult financial situation and its dealings with the IMF will be on his shoulders.

But there has been a has been a reduction in the crime. The murder rate, long one of the highest in the world, fell sharply as the authorities tackled criminal gangs in the wake of the Coke stand-off.

Amid Jamaica's history of political violence, many will be hoping that as Mr Holness takes office, the trend will continue in a year when the nation deserves to celebrate.

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