Suriname readies to vote despite virus

Suriname's President Desi Bouterse remains confident his party will hold onto power, but the opposition accuses it of corruption and over-spending (AFP Photo/FLORENCE LO)

Paramaribo (Suriname) (AFP) - The tiny South American nation of Suriname holds legislative elections next week despite the coronavirus pandemic, and amid corruption scandals and tough economic times.

Some 380,000 registered voters will cast ballots on May 25 to elect the 51-member national assembly, with safety measures in place to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19.

Suriname, a Dutch-speaking country on the northeast shoulder of South America, has had very few coronavirus cases and only one death.

But while the last of its first 10 cases was reported at the end of March, Health Minister Antoine Elias said that an 11th case, a Brazilian, tested positive on Saturday.

The Brazilian allegedly entered the country illegally alongside eight other men, who are all being held in quarantine.

Until this latest case, all previous infections had been declared cured.

Last week, the government started easing lockdown measures -- introduced in March -- opening up businesses but keeping land borders with French Guiana to the east and Guyana to the west closed.

Voters will be required to maintain social distances and wash hands at the 649 polling stations, mostly located in schools.

There are 17 parties contesting the 51 seats.

Opposition figures have complained about potential fraud with polling stations being staffed exclusively by members of President Desi Bouterse's ruling National Democratic Party, and about a bloated electoral roll that allegedly includes people who died years ago.

The independent electoral bureau (OKB) chairwoman Jennifer van Dijk-Silos demanded that Interior Minister Mike Noersalim "clean up the list."

She also called for transparency and demanded that authorities inform the public about virus safety measures.

"People will not show (up) to cast their vote if they have no confidence that when they enter the school premises that they will not be infected," Van Dijk-Silos said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, only the Organization of American States and Caribbean Community will act as election observers, with the European Union forced to cancel its mission.

Political parties have been unable to hold rallies due to lockdown measures but have turned to internet debates via Zoom, live Facebook sessions and car parades using loudspeakers.

Campaigning has been overshadowed by a slew of corruption scandals, including involving the central bank, and the dire economic outlook.

The country of fewer than 600,000 people depends heavily on mining and fishing.