Jamaicans prepare for election with economy key issue

Montego Bay (Jamaica) (AFP) - Jamaicans head to the polls Thursday, with economic concerns the top election issue in the Caribbean country where youth unemployment hovers around 40 percent.

Polls projected a close race between Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller's People's National Party and the opposition Jamaica Labor Party led by Andrew Holness.

About 58 per cent of Jamaica's 1.8 million registered voters were expected to turn out for this week's poll.

The island, the largest in the English-speaking Caribbean with about three million people, has struggled with sluggish economic growth.

The World Bank estimates real per capita GDP increased at an average of just one percent per year over the last three decades.

Unemployment is about 14 percent, with youth unemployment close to 40 percent.

Jamaica has long struggled with crime and corruption, and high debt prevents the government from investing in infrastructure and social programs.

Under Simpson Miller's government, Jamaica struck a deal with the International Monetary Fund in 2013 to embark on an ambitious fiscal reform program to reduce debt in exchange for nearly $1 billion in aid.

The opposition Jamaica Labor Party has sought to garner electoral support with populist proposals such as eliminating the income tax for those who earn less than J$1.5 million (about $12,400) per year.

The party that wins the majority of Jamaica's 63 parliamentary seats will form a government for a five-year term.

According to the national electoral commission, 152 candidates are running in the election.

Both major parties fielded full slates of 63 candidates, while the rest are independents or represent smaller parties.

The 70-year-old Simpson Miller, affectionately called "Mama P" by her supporters, is seeking her third term as prime minister.