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Jamaican Austerity Government Seeks Second Term, Opposition Vows Jobs

FILE - Jamaica's Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, right, arrives for the EU-CELAC summit in Brussels, June 11, 2015.

Jamaica's ruling party is expected to win re-election on Thursday after the heavily-indebted economy returned to growth under an IMF austerity plan, but it must fight off opposition promises of massive job creation and tax cuts.

Despite its socialist past, under Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller the People's National Party embraced spending cuts, wage-freezes and harsh fiscal discipline as a part of a $1.27 billion IMF bailout.

Simpson-Miller, 70, was Jamaica's first female head of state. During her tenure, inflation has fallen to a 48-year low.

Falling oil prices have freed up government funds in the import-dependent Caribbean nation, and the island's GDP grew 1.3 percent last year, according to the World Bank.

But unemployment is high at around 13 percent overall and a whopping 38 percent for youth.

"We will increase the rate of economic growth, we will quicken the pace of job creation, and we will make sustained investments in our people," Simpson-Miller said in a campaign video this week.

Dozens were hurt in a stampede when shots were fired as Simpson-Miller addressed PNP's closing rally on Tuesday, a reminder of high crime and gang involvement in politics.

Two people were shot and killed at an opposition rally earlier in February.

Despite such incidents, the campaign has been peaceful in comparison with the bloodshed of previous decades, when hundreds died in election violence.

Andrew Holness, 43, who leads the opposition Jamaican Labour Party, briefly served as prime minister in 2011 after unrest due to the U.S. attempt to extradite drug kingpin Christopher "Dudus" Coke forced his predecessor to resign Holness has criticized the government's austerity and promised steep income tax cuts he says will boost the economy's still sluggish growth. His ten-point economic program aims to create 250,000 new jobs, many in tourism and call centers.

Opinion polls show the PNP in the lead, although the margin has narrowed over the past week. The election results are expected later on Thursday.