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Jamaican faces uphill battle. Despite upswing in economy, Seaga not expected to win unprecedented third term

Despite a slight upturn in the economy and a festive mood linked to the 25th anniversary of Jamaica's independence, Prime Minister Edward Seaga is not expected to win the unprecedented third term he is likely to seek soon. The opposition People's National Party (PNP) ``is destined to sweep back into power whenever Mr. Seaga finds the courage to call the contest,'' says Carl Stone, a professor at the University of the West Indies and Jamaica's top pollster.

Declaring himself ``fit and ready'' after major surgery earlier this year, Michael Manley, the confident PNP leader and former prime minister, believes that official statistics showing positive economic growth and low inflation rates will not prevent his return to power.

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``Seaga believes wrongly that the election outcome will depend on the superficial state of buoyancy of the economy,'' Mr. Manley said in an interview. Rather, the electorate has already decided to remove a government that has been ``insensitive to social distress.''

Public opinion polls conducted by Mr. Stone in July revealed that 49 percent support the PNP, 34 percent support Seaga's Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), and 17 percent favour neither party. Since 1972, Stone Polls have correctly predicted all Jamaican election results.

But the prime minister is not about to roll over and hand power back to Manley. Three months ago, Seaga launched an island-wide blitz which he said was to explain government policies and programs but which has been widely regarded as the unofficial start of the election campaign. Seaga, first elected in 1980, was reelected amid controversy in 1983. Constitutionally, elections are not due again until the end of 1988.

Manley, asserting that Seaga had violated a bipartisan pledge that any new poll would be conducted on the basis of agreed electoral reform, boycotted the 1983 elections, leaving the JLP with all the seats and Jamaica with its first one-party parliament. The subsequent opposition campaign for new elections gained momentum in 1986 when the ruling JLP suffered a massive defeat in local elections. Both parties conducted those elections as a referendum on Seaga.

Political analysts are divided. Some say Seaga will use the momentum from a string of prominent foreign visitors, independence festivities, and the economic upturn to call elections within a few months. Others say he'll wait in hopes of a more sustained economic turnaround.

Whatever the election's timing, it is widely felt that Seaga faces an uphill task to become the first prime minister to win a third term. The most difficult problem is that the living standard of many middle- and working-class families has dropped substantially amid signs of unprecedented affluence among a minority.

Seaga's troubles contrast with the high expectations that greeted his big win in 1980. At the time, Manley's democratic socialism and aggressive nonalignment in foreign policy alienated the traditional ruling classes and soured relations with the US, drying up much foreign aid. Seaga consequently employed strong anticommunist, pro-US rhetoric and won an impressive victory in a violent election that left deep social wounds among the island's 2.2 million people.

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