Former dictator emerges as strong candidate to gain power in Suriname despite murder trial

By Arny Belfor, AP
Monday, May 24, 2010

Former dictator could gain power in Suriname

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — A former dictator and convicted drug trafficker appears poised to regain political power in Suriname, where he has cultivated a following among young people despite facing trial for the execution of political opponents in the 1980s.

The main opposition party led by Desi Bouterse appears likely to gain at least some control in the South American parliament in Tuesday’s election. His National Democratic Party currently holds 15 of the 51 seats.

Parliament routinely appoints a president shortly after its own elections. A president needs the vote of two-thirds of the lawmakers, so a coalition of Bouterse’s party and two smaller parties might win enough seats to vote him back in to the country’s top job.

A poll released during the campaign showed Bouterse’s coalition with 41 percent of the vote compared to 29 percent for the governing New Front coalition in the area surrounding the capital, Paramaribo, the country’s largest and most important election district.

Bouterse has not indicated since the campaign began whether he wants to resume the presidency, but he has expressed interest in the past and his party has not promoted any other candidate.

The former head of a left-leaning military regime, Bouterse, 64, has appealed primarily to the young and the poor with pledges of more housing and jobs. At a recent campaign rally, he said money the government has been putting into a widely touted $500 million reserve fund should instead be given to the hungry.

The five-party coalition government has warned that a Bouterse victory would be disastrous for Suriname, a former Dutch colony of 500,000 people.

President Ronald Venetiaan has vowed that his governing party will never work with the National Democratic Party as long as Bouterse is in control. Venetiaan, 73, who is nearing the end of his second consecutive term, is running to keep his seat in parliament but has said he will not seek to hold on to the presidency.

Ruling-coalition lawmaker Winston Jesserun said a recent slump in the exchange rate for Surinamese currency was due to the poll favoring Bouterse’s party.

“If only the idea of Bouterse gaining power causes this jump in the exchange rate, imagine what will happen if his party actually wins the elections,” Jesserun said at a rally.

The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other institutions have reported steady improvement of Suriname’s economy since disastrous financial policies that triggered massive protests and led to early elections in 2000.

Bouterse and 11 others are being tried in a military court on charges of murder in the killing of 15 prominent opponents to his regime while president. The victims were allegedly taken by soldiers to a military fort in Paramaribo and shot one by one. Two days after the killings, Bouterse said in a televised statement that the 15 men had been shot while trying to flee police detention.

Bouterse has denied any involvement in the 1982 slayings, although in March 2007 he offered a public apology and said he accepted political responsibility.

In 1999, a Dutch court convicted him on charges of trafficking cocaine from Suriname to the Netherlands and sentenced him to 11 years in prison, but Bouterse was not sent to the Netherlands because a treaty between the two countries prohibits the extradition of each others’ citizens.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said Washington will respect the results of free and fair elections.

“We are fully aware of Mr. Bouterse’s history and, if elected, the United States would have to take his history into account,” spokeswoman Virginia Staab said. “However, given Suriname’s current election campaign and the ongoing trial involving Mr. Bouterse, we do not believe it would be appropriate to comment further.”

Many Bouterse supporters believe his claims that the murder charges were contrived by the governing parties for political gain.

“Honestly, I cannot believe he was involved in the killing of those people,” said 23-year-old Doreen Marengo.

Bouterse seized control of Suriname in 1980, five years after it gained independence from the Netherlands. He stepped down under international pressure in 1987 and briefly seized power again in 1990.


Associated Press Writer Mike Melia in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

will not be displayed