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SURINAME | Will Desi Bouterse survive this Mother of All Elections in Suriname

Featured Presidential Palace, Paramaribo, Suriname Presidential Palace, Paramaribo, Suriname
PARAMARIBO, May 25, 2020 -  The people of Suriname, a member of the Caribbean Community of Nations, went to the polls today, Monday May 25 to hold parliamentary elections aimed at electing a new 51-seat National Assembly, which will then vote to determiner whether the country's embattled president, 74 year old Desiré Delano “Desi” Bouterse will remain in office.

The electorate which comprises 385,000 persons, is divided into 10 voting districts, with 17 parties competing for the 51 legislative seats. These are the ninth elections in Suriname since the country became independent from the Netherlands in 1975.

The established parties such as Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP)  and Chandrikapersad (Chan) Santokhi’s, VHP party, the largest party in the opposition, will be battling it out against millennial newcomers, to decide the way onward for the country that is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year.

The polls opened at 07:00 (local time) and close at 19:00. Partial results are expected to be announced around 22:00, with a projection of preliminary results being released early on Tuesday, May 26.

The vote has gone ahead despite the partial lockdown measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which have been temporarily lifted for the voting to take place.

A heightened security presence and localized disruption is reportedly in the vicinity of polling stations today. However, it is expected that unrest could be possible surrounding the announcement of the election results.

Bouterse is running for the third time. He first took power in 1980, when he led a coup d’état and sacked the then government and installed military rule. He lost the democratic elections of 1987 but came back strong and won by landslides in 2010 and 2015. The president’s National Democratic Party (NDP) has held the crippling majority of 26 seats in Parliament.

Today’s polls are critical, as they will determine Bouterse’s fate as he faces a 20-year prison sentence for murder.

Bouterse led the military junta in Suriname in 1980 after the "Sergeants' Coup," which overthrew the government of Henck Arron. He became president of the country in 2010 and was re-elected five years later.

A loss for Bouterse could mean that he is thrown in prison for his role in the December 1982 murders of 15 of his opponents. On November 29, 2019, the Military Court concluded the 12-year-old trial that brought 25 men to justice for their role in the murders. The court found them guilty and handed a 20-year sentence to the 74-year-old Bouterse.

Arising from this, speculation abounds whether a sitting president can be thrown in prison. This makes a win for the president Bouterse even more critically important.

For many, president Bouterse is a charismatic character  who remains immensely popular especially among the underprivileged who benefit from government’s emergency food packages and other handouts.

While Desi Bouterse remains personally a popular figure, many of the electorate  have  grown disenchanted with the NDP leadership. Over the past  two or so years, there has been a series of corruption scandals which has brought the government into disrepute.

The most glaring has been the disappearance in January this year of US $100 million from the Central Bank. Prior to that was  the dismissal of central Bank President Robert van Trikt who was arrested for fraud, and who last week implicated Finance Minister Gillmore Hoefdraad.

A poll in February found that 85 per cent of the electorate was unhappy with the country’s economic situation. Approximately three quarters of those polled said said things had worsened in comparison to a year before. The Bouterse cabinet got a 4.6 for its performance.

There have been a number of anti-government protest in recent months, and in February, thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against corruption, demanding that the government step down.

The deterioration in Suriname’s economic situation has raised major questions over its ability to repay its debt. Fitch, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s all downgraded Suriname’s debt ratings, the first two agencies to default levels.

If the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is running on its record of social reforms and major infrastructure spending, maintains its current 26-seats, it will keep its one-seat majority in the Assembly. 

The party will then mobilize its political allies to mobilize the needed two-thirds votes to  ensure  that President Desi Bouterse secures a third term in office.

If the party loses any seats, rival Chandrikapersad Santokhi of the Progressive Reform Party (VHP) is favourite to take office. A former police commissioner, Santokhi had served as a no-nonsense justice minister from 2005 to 2010 and ran as presidential candidate during both previous elections; he lost against Bouterse each time, but consistently maintained his opposition against the ruling party.

However VHP has been branded a racist party that favours only the Hindustani community, the descendants of Indian labourers who were brought to Suriname after slavery was abolished in 1863.

A recent report in the Daily Herald online paper, indicated that “During a meeting in the National Assembly on Monday, May 18, VHP parliamentarian Mahinder Jogi blatantly called Sylvana Afonsoewa of the NDP and who is of African Maroon descent, a monkey.

“Shut up, monkey,” he yelled at her, upon which he was admonished by Parliament Chair Jennifer Geerlings-Simons.”

However, “he repeated his racist outburst: “I apologise, chair, but I did not know we had monkeys in Parliament.” Geerlings-Simons then muted his mic and ordered him removed from the meeting by police.”

Opponents of the VHP are pointing to the incident as proof of what to expect if VHP win the elections. Its understood that VHP has not apologised for Jogi’s words.  It is said this is not the first time that Mahinder Jogi made such outbursts, as he has called Afonsoewahas a monkey before.

“In response to the request from the Government of the Republic of Suriname, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has fielded a CARICOM Election Observation Mission to monitor the general elections which will be held on Monday, 25 May 2020,” a statement from the CARICOM secretariat said.

The smallest country in South America has reported 11 cases of confirmed infections with one death. The 11th case is a Brazilian who allegedly entered the country illegally alongside eight other men, according to the country's health ministry.

Two weeks ago, the government started easing lockdown measures by opening up businesses. But it kept borders with French Guiana and Guyana closed.

Government has hired some 7,000 people to work for and during the elections, which include those who are manning the polling stations.

The elections are expected to have a SRD 160 million tab – approximately US $21.5 million – which is more than double the cost of the 2015 general elections. The Organization of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community CARICOM have sent election observers.

  • Countries: Suriname

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