Strongman looms large as Suriname votes

Ranu Abhelakh
Suriname goes to the polls in general elections with its convicted drug trafficker president Desi Bouterse striving to tighten his controversial grip on the reins of power (AFP Photo/Louise Alfaisie)

Paramaribo (Suriname) (AFP) - Suriname goes to the polls in general elections on Monday with its convicted drug trafficker president striving to tighten his controversial grip on the reins of power.

The colorful Desi Bouterse, who has ruled the small South American country on and off since 1980, is seeking to dispense with his alliance with one-time nemesis Ronnie Brunswijk and preside over the first non-coalition democratic government in Suriname's history.

Bouterse's National Democratic Party formed a government after the last elections in 2010 by forging a motley mega-coalition, returning him to power for the second time since his 1980-1987 military government.

But after the coalition fell apart, the NDP decided to go it alone this time, buoyed by strong standings in opinion polls.

The party needs to win at least 26 seats in the 51-member National Assembly to govern alone, and 34 seats to re-elect Bouterse -- the president is chosen by a two-thirds majority of parliament.

"Strong foundations have been laid for the future of this country," Bouterse, who has been a coup leader, dictator and an international fugitive, told large crowds on Saturday.

He accused the main opposition V7, a coalition of six parties, of fear mongering.

"We have to stop with using the culture of fear and unremitting suspense against this society," he bellowed, to hearty cheers from supporters.

The V7, which has a broad ethnic base in the racially diverse country whose 500,000 people have roots in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas, in turn accuses Bouterse of massive corruption.

At the same time, legislator Chan Santokhi, who leads the V7, promised a "powerful, honest government, good governance."

The third main group in the election fray, and possible powerbroker, is the Alternative Combination alliance led by Brunswijk, a former guerrilla leader who fought a civil war against Bouterse's military government before teaming up with his former foe in 2010.


- Bouterse looms large -


The party's base are the Maroons, the descendants of fugitive slaves who set up settlements in the Surinamese interior.

The smallest country in South America, Suriname was colonized by the British and Dutch and gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975.

Five years later, a group of sergeants led by Bouterse overthrew prime minister Henck Arron and installed a military government.

Whether in his dictator's fatigues and sunglasses or his sharp president's suit, Bouterse, 69, has loomed large over the country's politics ever since.

His regime put down two countercoups and rounded up and executed 15 opponents in 1982, an event known as the "December killings."

Bouterse stepped down in 1987, but returned to power in 1990 in a second, bloodless coup.

After leaving power a second time, Bouterse was indicted and court-martialed for the December killings, but his coalition passed a controversial amnesty law in 2012 that aborted the trial.

The president and his family have faced a host of other legal woes, adding to the country's reputation for drug running, money laundering and graft.

The Netherlands convicted him in absentia of cocaine smuggling in 1999, but he remained free because Suriname does not extradite its citizens.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court rejected his third bid to have the conviction overturned.

In all, seven parties and four coalitions are vying for the ballots of 350,000 registered voters, who will also elect their district and local representatives.

Polls open at 7:00 am (1000 GMT) and close 12 hours later.

The first, partial results are expected at 10:00 pm, with a projection of the full results early Tuesday.