Suriname votes with convicted-killer president's future at stake
PARAMARIBO, Suriname (UPDATED) – Polls opened early on Monday, May 25 as Suriname's convicted-murderer president Desi Bouterse seeks to hold onto power despite a survey suggesting his NDP party will lose its majority in the legislative elections.
Authorities have lifted a partial coronavirus lockdown for the day and voters lined up at 1.5-meter gaps from before the polls opened at 7 am.
Just over 380,000 people are eligible to elect the 51 members of the National Assembly in this Dutch-speaking and ethnically-diverse South American nation of 600,000 people.
The Assembly, in turn, will elect the president, making it crucial to Bouterse's hopes of winning a third term.
He and his wife Ingrid Waaldring were amongst the first people to vote at a school in the capital Paramaribo, where supporters and media took their pictures.
But an opinion poll by research institute IDOS suggests Bouterse's National Democratic Party is about to lose its legislative majority.
IDOS predicted the NDP's overall share will fall from 26 seats to 14-17, with opposition parties claiming 12 of the 17 seats in the capital.
'Heart and soul'
Bouterse is a controversial figure who last year was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a military court for carrying out executions during a previous military dictatorship.
He first took power in a 1980 coup and in 1982 allegedly rounded up and executed 15 political opponents, including lawyers, journalists, and businessmen. The incident, known as the "December killings," was investigated by his main rival in the current ballot, Chandrikapersad Santokhi.
Bouterse, 74, appealed his conviction and the case was postponed until June due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a separate case, a Dutch court in 1999 sentenced Bouterse to 11 years in prison in absentia for cocaine smuggling – a charge he denies.
The majority of voters turned out in their party's colors or wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of candidates.
Rudy Cederburg, a senior citizen, wore purple and white, with purple trainers.
"I'm a true NDP in heart and soul," he told Agence France-Presse. "I want this party to continue the development path it has taken, continue their development plans for this country."
The NDP campaigned on its strong track record of substantially increasing social welfare, introducing mandatory health and pension insurances, carrying out major infrastructure projects and granting property to the landless.
Opposition parties, though, accuse the Bouterse administration of numerous corruption scandals and have warned that the country cannot afford the NDP's spending.
Surinamese are also electing 118 district and 772 local representatives, with 17 parties and more than 5,700 candidates on ballot papers.
Special coronavirus measures meant officials dabbed blue ink on the voters' fingers with an ear swab rather than letting them dip their fingers in an ink pot.
A special mobile polling station was set up at the Zorghotel in Paramaribo for 187 people in coronavirus quarantine.
The election is being observed by the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community.
Santokhi of the Progressive Reform Party (VHP) was bullish before the election.
"I give you the guarantee that VHP will be the largest and we will govern and we will remove NDP from power," he said.
However, VHP would likely still need to form a coalition to govern.
Surinamese often vote along ethnic lines, meaning the General Liberation and Development Party (ABOP), led by legislator Ronnie Brunswijk, a former jungle rebel who fought a civil war against Bouterse in the 1980s and represents the Maroons – descendents of African slaves – and Paul Somohardjo's Pertjajah Luhur (PL) party, representing the Indonesian community, are significant forces.
Many parties have publically ruled out a coalition with the NDP as they blame the Bouterse administration for the financial crisis in the gold-and-oil-exporting nation.
While a party or coalition needs only a simple majority to take control of the National Assembly, a president requires two-thirds of the votes to be elected.
If Bouterse loses his appeal, even being elected president would not spare him from prison.
Polls open at 7:00 am (1000 GMT; 6:00 pm Manila time) on Monday and close 12 hours later.
Partial results are expected around 10:00 pm, with a projection of full preliminary results due early Tuesday. – Rappler.com