Voters in Suriname debate whether former dictator facing murder trial should resume power

By Arny Belfor, AP
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Suriname debates former dictator’s possible return

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — An opposition party led by a former dictator and convicted drug trafficker appeared likely to gain seats in Suriname’s parliament in elections Tuesday in the small South American country.

The political comeback mounted by Desi Bouterse was a popular topic of debate at polling places, with some voters arguing the country’s strengthening economy could unravel under the man who ran a leftist military regime in the 1980s.

“If you take a look at his history and track record, I cannot understand that people pin their hopes on Bouterse for a better future,” said Regi Kensenhuys, 42, of Osembo.

Polls indicated Bouterse’s coalition went into the election leading the governing New Front coalition in the area surrounding the capital of Paramaribo.

Bouterse could become president if his coalition builds enough of an advantage in parliament. The president is chosen by a two-thirds vote by lawmakers. Since no coalition is expected to win such a large majority outright, negotiations will likely be required to settle on a new leader.

President Ronald Venetiaan, 73, is running for parliament but is not seeking another term in the top job. He has said his party will never work with the opposition as long as Bouterse is in control.

None of the parties had submitted a presidential candidate, although Bouterse expressed interest in the past and his party offered no other names.

Observers with the Organization of American States said voting was peaceful and reported no irregularities.

Bouterse, whose National Democratic Party currently holds 15 of 51 seats in parliament, has become popular among the young and the poor by promising more jobs and affordable housing.

“They will stop multinationals from carrying our gold and other natural resources,” said Kevin Pique, 22, who said he voted for Bouterse’s coalition.

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.

He and 11 others are standing trial on charges that they executed 15 prominent political opponents in 1982. The trial is scheduled to resume in June. Bouterse has denied any involvement, but he accepted political responsibility in a 2007 public apology.

He was previously convicted in a Dutch court in 1999 of trafficking cocaine from Suriname to the Netherlands, but he avoided an 11-year prison sentence because both countries prohibit extradition of each others’ citizens.

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