KINGSTON Jamaica's main opposition party rode a wave of discontent with a bad economy to a big win at the polls on Thursday, in elections that swept former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller back into office.
Preliminary official results showed Simpson Miller's People's National Party, or PNP, winning 41 of the 63 parliamentary seats at stake in the national election.
The results gave the Jamaica Labour Party, or JLP, of Prime Minister Andrew Holness just 22 seats.
"The people of Jamaica have spoken," Holness, 39, told reporters late on Thursday after calling the 66-year-old Simpson Miller to concede defeat.
"I wish the new government well," he said. "There are challenges that they will face, challenges that we are quite well aware of. And we hope for the benefit of the country and for the interest of the people of Jamaica that they will do a good job,
The centre-right JLP is considered slightly more conservative than Simpson Miller's PNP, which narrowly lost a general election in 2007 after she briefly served as Jamaica's first female premier.
But there are no major ideological differences between the parties, in a country once notorious for political bloodletting. Analysts have said neither party would have much room for manoeuvre in office as it deals with a huge debt burden and high unemployment.
Many expect the new government will be forced to implement unpopular austerity measures, including possible layoffs of state workers, in an effort to shore up the economy after it received a $1.27 billion lifeline from the International Monetary Fund last year.
Simpson Miller did not spell out any belt-tightening or other economic measures in a long and rambling victory speech outside her campaign headquarters in the capital, Kingston.
But she has vowed to appeal to the IMF to extend the period Jamaica has to repay any loans, to give the Caribbean island more leeway to jump-start the economy.
Holness took office in October after his predecessor surprisingly resigned.
Although one of the Caribbean's more developed economies, Jamaica is saddled with a public debt load totalling more than 120 percent of gross domestic product.
That has proved a huge drag on the economy, which is dependent on tourism and has failed to grow over the past four years, sputtering since the JLP took power.
Unemployment has risen to 12.9 percent from 9.8 percent in 2007.
(Writing by Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney)