Suriname, the smallest country in South America, has its share of problems (some of which we’ll come to shortly), but it has at least done well so far in dealing with Covid-19, recording only eleven cases and one death. As a result, its general election will apparently go ahead on schedule tonight.
Also once known as Dutch Guiana, Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. As was typical of the era, it quickly fell prey to corruption, ethnic strife and authoritarian rule, culminating in a military coup in 1980 led by sergeant Desi Bouterse.
Bouterse ran the country for the next decade, and remained influential after the restoration of democracy in 1991. Nonetheless, Suriname did reasonably well by regional standards; it is highly ranked by both Freedom House and the Economist’s democracy index, and economic growth was strong in the early years of this century.
One of Suriname’s peculiarities is its constitutional structure. It has an executive presidency, but the president is elected by the legislature, the National Assembly, as in South Africa. Unlike in South Africa, however, the election is for a fixed term: although constitutionally the president is “answerable to the National Assembly” (article 90), there is no provision for removing a president mid-term. In that respect it is more like Switzerland, but with a single rather than a collective presidency.
It was under this structure that Bouterse managed to put together a winning coalition to be chosen as president after the election of 2010. He governed as a populist, helping the poor but ruining the country’s finances, rather like a non-ideological version of his friend Hugo Chávez. He was re-elected in 2015 when his party, the National Democratic Party, narrowly won an absolute majority, 26 of the 51 seats.
In the meantime, the wheels of justice were turning. Bouterse was already the subject of an international arrest warrant for drug trafficking, and in 2007 he was charged with the murder of 15 opponents of his then military regime back in 1982 – who on his account, in the time-honored formula, “were shot while trying to escape.”
The National Assembly obligingly granted him an amnesty in 2012, but that was later struck down by the court, and last November he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison – an almost unheard-of occurrence for a sitting president. He remains free on appeal.
So the incumbent’s fate is on the line tonight in an unusually serious way. If Bouterse’s opponents can win a majority, he will probably spend the rest of his life (he is 74) in jail. If he is re-elected, he will no doubt take that as a mandate to overturn his conviction by one means or another.
Voting is by proportional representation in each of ten multi-member constituencies, apportioned in such a way as to favor the sparsely-populated south of the country, in which the NDP is stronger – an effect that may be more pronounced this time, since restrictions on movement due to the health crisis may inhibit the opposition’s efforts to detect fraud.
That said, a president who has just been convicted of murder should present a soft target for any opposition. The question may well be just how far Bouterse will be willing to trash his country’s democratic reputation in order to stave off defeat.
Results may (or may not) appear at the elections website sometime tomorrow.