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Tide Turns Against Reagan Favorite in Jamaica

August 22, 1986|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

KINGSTON, Jamaica — The political tables have turned in Jamaica, the Caribbean's largest English-speaking country.

Prime Minister Edward Seaga, a conservative favorite of President Reagan, is in deep trouble 5 1/2 years after taking power with an overwhelming electoral mandate.

And former Prime Minister Michael Manley, a left-leaning favorite of Cuban President Fidel Castro, is riding high after an impressive victory by his party in nationwide local elections July 29.

When Seaga and Reagan were new in power in early 1981, their hopes were high for the future of conservative government in Jamaica, a nation of 2.2 million people.

So were the hopes of Jamaican voters who had suffered economic chaos and political turmoil under the democratic-socialist Manley government. But analysts agree now that Seaga's austere economic policies and aloof leadership style have alienated most voters and revived Manley's political fortunes.

Can Hold Off Until 1989

Nevertheless, it may not be easy for Manley to translate the bonanza into government power. Seaga is not required by law to hold new general elections until early 1989.

In the July 30 elections for Jamaica's 13 parish, or local district, councils, Manley's People's National Party won 57% of the vote to 43% for Seaga's Jamaica Labor Party. The vote was universally interpreted as a resounding rebuke to Seaga. He staggered under the blow.

"It obviously will mean a good deal of deep looking at the party, at our organization, at our candidates, at our members of Parliament, at our policies and, if I may say so, at our leadership," Seaga said somberly a few days after the election.

Morriq Cargill, a prominent political commentator who has never supported Manley, said the vote shows that the country wants a change of national leadership.

Early Election Urged

"It must be quite clear now to everyone, including Mr. Seaga, that a fairly early general election should be called," Cargill wrote.

The July 29 contest was the first test of polling power between Seaga's and Manley's parties since late 1980, when Manley lost the government, taking only nine of the 60 seats in Parliament. Analysts say that if last month's election had been for Parliament, Seaga's party itself probably would not have won more than nine seats.

Seaga's 1980 triumph was followed in 1983 by another parliamentary election, in which his party won all 60 seats. Manley's party refused to run that year because he said Seaga had reneged on a promise to reform electoral rolls before calling elections.

As a result, Seaga won a five-year term with no opposition in Parliament to seek a vote of no-confidence or demand early elections. Now, with the moral weight of the July 29 vote behind his party, Manley is expected to increase pressure for parliamentary elections before 1989.

"Manley smells blood," said Lloyd Williams, editor of the Daily Star, Jamaica's afternoon newspaper. "Having won this election, he wants to go for the big thing. He really smells blood."

A foreign diplomat commented, "Manley is sure that sooner or later it's going to fall in his lap."

Most analysts say the cause of Seaga's poor showing in the voting was the economic hardships that have plagued Jamaicans for the last three years.

In keeping with recommendations of the International Monetary Fund and his own conservative policies, Seaga imposed a financial austerity program designed to balance the national budget and put the country's finances in order.

At the same time, slumping world prices for bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is extracted, depressed Jamaica's main export.

Painful Austerity Measures

The austerity measures have included the reduction of consumer price subsidies, devaluation of the Jamaican dollar and the elimination of thousands of government jobs. Unemployment has soared to more than one-fourth of the work force, and the cost of living has risen sharply.

"What killed Seaga is the cost of living," said one of his advisers.

Since late 1984, Seaga has been saying that the worst is over, that the economy is turning the corner on the way to better times. But national economic output shrank by nearly 5% in 1985, and although the economy shows signs this year of revival, recovery is still uncertain.

The Reagan Administration has not been stingy in its efforts to support the Seaga government. U.S. aid to Jamaica since 1982 has averaged $130 million a year, or nearly $60 for each Jamaican, one of the highest levels in the world.

The aid, however, cannot solve Jamaica's basic economic problems, according to Omar Davies, an economist at the University of the West Indies in Kingston.

"The basis for sustained growth just does not exist," Davies said in an interview.

In May, Seaga announced a new budget that reduced some consumer prices and increased public spending. The new plan seemed to go against his old conservative policy, which has been called an offshoot of Reaganomics.

"In a sense, he has tacitly accepted that it has failed," said Davies.

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