A waving mass of clenched fists, smiling faces and swaying bodies stretched away from the politicians on the stage and into the hot, humid obscurity of the Jamaican night.

The mounting exaltation of the tatered masses gathered in Kingston's Halfway Tree Park pushed aside pervasive fears of political violence that has cost more than 450 lives since elections were announced Feb. 3 and worries that bloody fighting and political vengeance might erupt on a massive scale when voters finally go to the polls Thursday. The gunmen did not come this Saturday evening to blast away at the crowd, as happens so often here these days.

"Michael" was coming. Michael Manley, 56, the prime minister seeking an unprecedented and, until recently, improbably third term. Manley, the leader of Jamaica's increasingly radical People's National Party, the prophet of a visionary, socialist future for the Caribbean's largest English-speaking island, was about to arrive.

"Joshua," his people called to him as to a biblical leader taking them to a promised land.

"Every time I talk about Joshua," they sang beneath a haze of marijuana smoke, between swigs of Red Strip beer, "every time I talk about Joshua I feel good, good, good."

It is midday Sunday in West Kingston. Edward Seaga, 50, leader of the conservative, business-oriented opposition Jamaica Labor Party, stops his ragtag motorcade to greet hundreds of his own excited supporters.

A relatively colorless man, Seaga thrills his people by exuding a confident competence. His party stalwarts admit he has no charisma. But everyone is shouting and laughing and dancing as they see him.

Machine-gun toting bodyguards stand by, nervous but amused, as Seaga is hoisted up and carried aloft by the crowd.

"Deliverance," the people are calling out. "Deliverance." Deliverance from Michael Manley.

Politics in Jamaica is like old-time religion, based more on faith and fervor than on reason -- and capable in the wake of the elections, many Jamaicans now fear, of leading to bloddy crusades for power that could completely ravage this terribly beautiful, terribly impoverished country.

This ninth election in Jamaica's history is unlike any in its past. The stakes are higher, the world is watching, and there are more guns. When both candidates claim that the future of the nation is on the line, nobody doubts them.

Jamaica is on the verge of bankruptcy. It has no foreign exchange and the shelves of its stores are as empty as the once-crowded tourist beaches.

The government-guaranteed foreign debt, all but unpayable, stands at $1.3 billion. An arrangement with the International Monetary Fund for economic help has been broken off amid bitter controversy over the fund's plans and motives as well as Manley's.

For seven years Jamaica's economy has been shrinking instead of growing. Unemployment is at least 35 percent. For Jamaicans under 25, half the population, there is little or no work at all, and as they suffer their militancy grows.

Many of the nation's businessmen, technicians, and managers have abandoned the island. Many more are preparing to leaven en masse if the elections go what they consider the wrong way or if widespread bloodshed erupts.

Manley places most of the blame for this situation of powers beyond his control. The pressures of world trade dominated by soaring oil prices are one cause of Jamaica's ills, says Manley. While the need for exports to earn money to pay the oil bill has increased, production of traditional Jamaican export commodities such as sugar and bananas has plunged and not even the country's economic staple bauxite has filled the gap.

Manley faults the old Jamaican elite -- to which both he and Seaga were born -- for the island's lack of production. This virtual "oligarchy" has consistently worked to thwart his programs, Manley says, while he has been laboring to bring social and economic justice to the island.

Seaga, on the other hand, claims that virtually the whole mess is Manley's fault. He sees the causes of the current crisis in Jamaica in eight years of Manley, whose mismanagement, ideologicial posturing and courting of communist Cuba have alienated old friends in the United States, and who has attempted to be a world leader while letting bureaucracy, inefficiency and discord run rampant at home.

Although Manley has been careful not to make direct attacks on U.S. influence here, members of his party are not so reserved. There have been frequent denunciations of alleged destabilization by the Central Intelligence Agency. Seaga is occasionally referred to as CIAga.

The Labor Party has retaliated with frequent attacks on alleged Cuban influence, denouncing the Cuban ambassador and claiming that Cuban Presdient Fidel Castro is sending both men and munitions to Manley's aid.

In January Seaga's party and an allied labor union virtually shut down the city of Kingston for several days and forced Manley to call for elections a year early in an attempt to resurrect the popular mandate he feels is necessary to run the country.

For months it seemed the mandate would be Seaga's instead. By the summer, polls showed the Jamaica Labor Party with a substantial 15 percent lead.

But Manley has come back strong and now a few days before the vote the race appears almost even. Respected pollster Carl Stone now shows Seaga with 53.8 percent and Manley with 46.2 percent of the vote. Since the margin of error in the poll is about 5 percent and 8 percent of the voters are undecided, the election could easily go either way.

The result is that each side now believes firmly that it will win, and members of each party are girding to fight if they feel they've been cheated of victory.

After nine months of continuing violence both leaders are belatedly making public calls for their people to be peaceful on election day. But the pleas are all but drowned in the tide of partisan hatred that has swept the island.

"Vote early and go home," Manley told his followers last weekend, moving easily into the singsong patois they speak. "Do not look any argument with anybody. Go as silent as the night, go as silent as a ghost."

But at the same time he called for divine retribution against Seaga, whom Manley blames for all the bloodshed. "What they have done is wickedness," he said of the Labor Party leadership. "Thursday is judgment day. Thursday night, punishment night."

Seaga meanwhile says confidently that his people control the streets. There are also some indications that the Army police are more sympathetic to the opposition than to the government. If he loses unexpectedly and suspiciously, Seaga said, "The hell to pay is not my hell to pay. I can't account for everyone who supports me."

Meanwhile, more guns arrive on the island each day. This morning a shipment was captured in Montego Bay. Inside a hurriedly abandoned crate were more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and 10 rifles equipped with silencers.