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In 2002, P.J. Patterson became the only prime minister in Jamaican history to be elected to three consecutive terms. His People's National Party (PNP) won 34 of 60 parliamentary seats, and retained the prime minister for an unprecedented fourth term. The opposition Jamaican Labor Party (JLP) took 26 seats. Patterson also became the first premier to swear allegiance to the Jamaican people and constitution, rather than to the Queen of England. The firsts marked by the election, however, did virtually nothing to change the challenges facing the PNP, which in fact lost 15 seats in parliament, including ridding the island of drug kingpins and illegal guns, revving up a flat economy, and rebuilding a slumping tourist industry.
Jamaica, a member of the Commonwealth, achieved independence from Great Britain in 1962. It is a parliamentary democracy, with the British monarchy represented by a governor-general. The bicameral parliament consists of the 60member House of Representatives elected for five years and the 21-member Senate, with 13 senators appointed by the prime minister and 8 by the leader of the parliamentary opposition. Executive authority is vested in the prime minister, who leads the political party commanding a majority in the house. In August 2002, Patterson helped pass legislation changing the oath of allegiance taken by public officials.
Since independence, power has alternated between the social-democratic PNP and the conservative JLP. In 1992 the PNP elected Patterson to replace Michael Manley as party leader and prime minister. In the 1993 elections, the PNP won 52 parliamentary seats, and the JLP 8. The parties differed little on continuing the structural adjustment begun in the 1980s, but the JLP was hurt by long-standing internal rifts. Irregularities and violence marred the vote. The Patterson government confronted labor unrest and an unrelenting crime wave. Increases in violent crime are largely the work of former politically organized gangs that now operate a lucrative drug trade that is only loosely tied to local party bosses.
In 2000, Patterson promised to stanch Jamaica's "rampant criminality" by introducing new efforts to control guns, creating a new police anti-organized-crime strike force, and reintroducing the death penalty. The get-tough promises came after criticisms from key leaders of the vital tourism industry joined a crescendo of complaints from Jamaicans of all walks of life demanding an end to a more than two-decades-long spiral of mostly drug-related street crime. The fierce crime wave crippled local businesses and created an exodus of middle-class Jamaicans overseas. Gang fighting in West Kingston erupted in May 2001, leaving a toll of 71 dead; and 28 others--including at least three police officers and one soldier--were killed in several days of gunfights as police and soldiers moved into opposition-held communities.
In 2002, a national crime plan, hammered out with the support of the JLP and the country's business community, helped to bring about large cocaine seizures. It included increased training for police, stronger criminal intelligence planning, and greater ties to foreign law enforcement agencies. Patterson vowed to encourage foreign investment and boost tourism by attracting more pleasure boats to the island, constructing 11,000 new hotel rooms in 5 years, and promoting ecotourism.
Citizens are able to change their government through elections, although the 56 percent voter turnout was the lowest in years. An observer delegation led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said that, despite a crackdown in voter fraud, such activity remained high in areas controlled by politically linked gangs.
Constitutional guarantees regarding the right to free expression, the right to freedom of religion, and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions are generally respected.
The judicial system is headed by the Supreme Court and includes several magistrate's courts and a court of appeals, with final recourse to the Privy Council in London, which is drawn from members of Britain's House of Lords. The justice system is slow and inefficient, particularly in addressing police abuses and the violent conditions in prisons. Despite governmental efforts to improve penal conditions, a mounting backlog of cases and a shortage of court staff at all levels continue to undermine the judicial system.
Jamaica is a main transit point for cocaine being shipped from Colombia through the Caribbean to U.S. markets, and the drug trade is now largely controlled by Colombian organized crime syndicates. Violence is the major cause of death in Jamaica, and the murder rate is one of the highest in the world. Much of the violence is the result of warfare between drug gangs known as "posses." Criminal deportees from the United States and a growing illegal weapons trade are major causes of the violence. Mobs have been responsible for numerous vigilante killings of suspected criminals. Inmates frequently die as a result of prison riots. Jamaican officials complain that the United States was flagrantly applying a double standard by demanding a full effort by Jamaica to help stop the flow of drugs into the United States, but at the same time failing to stem the flow of guns into Jamaica.
Human rights groups report that there are continuing concerns over criminal justice practices in Jamaica, particularly the shooting of suspects by police. Other disputed practices include the imposition of death sentences following trials of questionable fairness; deaths in custody; corporal punishment; alleged ill-treatment by police and prison wardens; appalling detention centers and prisons; and laws punishing consensual sexual acts in private between adult men. A mounting crime rate led the government to take controversial steps toward restoring capital punishment and flogging. Rights groups protested both measures. Critics charge that flogging is unconstitutional because it can be characterized as "inhuman or degrading punishment," which the constitution prohibits.
There are an estimated 1.9 million radios in Jamaica? the highest per capita ratio in the Caribbean--but only 330,000 television sets, and there is generally low newspaper readership. Newspapers are independent and free of government control. Journalists are occasionally intimidated during election campaigns. Broadcast media are largely public but are open to pluralistic points of view. Public opinion polls play a key role in the political process, and election campaigns feature debates on state-run television.
In 1998, a woman was for the first time elected speaker of parliament. Labor unions are politically influential and have the right to strike. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal mediates labor conflicts.