IN THE Jamaican election next week, the government is running chiefly against the International Monetary Fund and the world financial system that it represents. "This is not an ordinary election," Prime Minister Michael Manley declared. For much of the world, the Jamaican case has become a test of the poor countries' claims against the rich ones. The IMF is prepared to give Jamaica quite a lot of help. But the question is the conditions for it.

Or, to put it another way, the question is the degree to which Jamaica, under Mr. Manley, has contributed to its own misfortunes. In the 1960s, the Jamaican economy was booming. International aluminum companies were developing the bauxite industry. Tourism was rapdily expanding. Following the then current fashion in development theory, the government -- long before Mr. Manley's arrival in 1972 -- began shifting emphasis from agriculture to manufacturing. The error in this strategy became apparent in the 1970s, when a strong and productive agricultural sector would have paid off handsomely. Instead, employment had become dependent on a style of manufacturing that required imported materials, foreign exchange and continued investment.

Mr. Manley's style of socialism aggravated weaknesses already apparent. Gripped by the example of OPEC, he sharply increased the taxes on bauxite and called on the other bauxite-producing countries to follow him. But they declined, and the aluminum companies -- for several years -- went elsewhere for their ore. Mr. Manley is a democrat, but he is also an outspoken admirer of Fidel Castro. The investors began to get nervous, and a capital flight started. The vulnerable new manufacturing industries began to starve for foreign exchange. The economy declined steadily, and unemployment soared. The government turned to foreign banks for loans to keep the factories going. But, incited by Mr. Manley's gestures to the left, the capital flight continued and, as the debate mounted, the banks began to cut off the loans. It was only then, as a desperate last resort, that Mr. Manley turned to the IMF.

The IMF is not a foreign aid agency. Its job is to stabilize the world financial system by lending to countries in trouble. But it lends only on condition that countries change their economic policies to bring their accounts into balance. That usually means reducing the standard of living. Jamaica agreed to rather drastic conditions, failed to meet them, and, last spring, broke off further negotiations.

The widespread bloodshed in the election campaign is a bad omen for Jamaica. Regardless of the election's outcome, the next government will probably go back to the IMF. There, partly in response to the Jamaican case, policy has been shifting significantly. Future loans are likely to be longer, with conditions less drastic in their impact. But it remains true that the IMF is not going to lend where there is no hope of being repaid.

Jamaica is now a leading example of a country that, having lived beyond its means, is going through severe economic contraction. That destabilizes its politics, in turn making future loans and investment still more risky. But to restore the prosperity and hopes of the early 1970s would require more aid than the rest of the world is prepared to provide. That's the Jamaican dilemma, but not, unfortunately, Jamaica's alone.