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Jamaica's 'most important' election

A bright tropical sun warms this lovely Caribbean island, but it cannot mask the mood of ugly violence that has swept Jamaica recently -- a mood that is intensifying as a bitter election campaign comes down to the wire Thursday.

At stake is Jamaica's future. Will Jamaican voters, who regularly go to the polls in exceedingly high numbers, retain Prime Minister Michael Manley and his "democratic socialism" with its Cuban and third-world contacts in offce. Or will they turn instead to Edward Seaga and his brand of pro-US Western-style capitalism?

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It is a clear-cut choice in what both sides agree is the most crucial election since Jamaica became independent in 1962. The race is being watched around the world because of its ideological implications. But the real issues, the ones upon which the vote hinges, are economic.

University political scientist and polister Carl Stone wrote recently that although the election is arousing "high-level interest overseas because of great preoccupation with its great ideological significance, the Jamaican voters are focusing on the more mundane and pragmatic issues. . . .

"[They] are going to make a judgment based on an assessment of which party they think is more likely to create jobs and improve their standard of living."

That is why Mr. Stone, who has so accurately forecast the way Jamaicans vote over two decades, comes down on the side of Mr. Seaga and his Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) -- with a 55.9 percent tally for the JLP against 44.1 for Mr. Manley's Peoples National Party (PNP) in a poll released two days before the vote. More importantly, the Stone poll forecast that the JLP will win between 42 and 45 of the 60 parliamentary seats, more than enough to make Mr. Seaga the prime minister.

Talk to Jamaicans in the urban morass of Trench Town in West Kingston; in hill country around Spanish Town, once the island's capital; in the north-coast resort of Ocho Rios; in the bauxite-mining complex in Maggotty; or anywhere on this island of 2.1 million persons, and it becomes clear that economic issues -- and violence -- are the key concerns.

There are reports that the parties are slipping arms into the countries. The JLP claims that the PNP is getting arms from Cuba, and the PNP charges its opposition is getting arms from the US. But such charges are not new.

Mr. Manley is widely liked and admired, but he and his PNP have come in for a heavy round of criticism for their economic performance.

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"They just don't have it anymore," said Reginald Armbruster, a veteran farmhand near Spanish Town. "I think we should throw the rascals out and give Eddie [Seaga] and his boys a chance to clear up the mess."

His view is widely held here. The island's budget is out of kilter and there is little economic confidence in the Manley government.

After 8 1/2 years of PNP control, purchasing power is off and the voters know it. Unemployment is more than 20 percent. Business is in a slump. Shortages of consumer goods such as flour and sugar are widespread.

Seaga and his JLP make the most of this in their campaigning. Manley counterattacks -- directing his focus away from the economic troubles toward the violence, attempting to pin responsibility on the JLP.

Jamaicans are very much aware of the violence. Nearly 600 have deaths since Jan. 1. The majority of the victims were gunned down in political warfare waged largely in the West Kingston ghettos of trench Town, Whitfield Town, French Town , and Denham Town. North coast tourist areas, which enjoyed their best tourist season in a decade last winter, were virtually unaffected by violence.

Among those killed was Roy McGann, No. 2 man in the Ministry of National Security and a candidate for re-election to parliament. Circumstances of his death Oct. 14 are muddled. Each side blames the other, just as they blame each other for the violence in general. Independent observers say guilt might be equally shared.

As the campaigns draw to a close, Manley supporters are speaking of the "fascist" forces of the JLP, while Seaga forces warn of "godless communism" under the PNP.

This could be dismissed as election rhetoric if the mood were not so bitter and the results so important -- not only to Jamaica's immediate future, but also to the Caribbean as a whole, which is eyeing Thursday's vote with intensity.

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