Former dictator Bouterse’s political party emerges as biggest parliament bloc in Suriname

By Arny Belfor, AP
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ex-dictator’s party biggest bloc in Suriname vote

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Allies of former dictator Desi Bouterse have overtaken Suriname’s governing coalition in parliamentary elections, positioning him to run for president despite a pending trial in the execution of 15 opponents in the 1980s.

Bouterse, who previously was convicted by a Dutch court of drug trafficking, has declined to say whether he will seek the South American nation’s top job — a process that would require alliances with other parties.

His Mega Combination coalition won 23 of the 51 seats in parliament to become the largest bloc, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.

Voters who remember Bouterse’s leftist military regime in the 1980s as a time of economic instability and human rights abuses were startled by the outcome, despite pre-election polls favoring Bouterse’s party.

“I was shocked, but now I say to myself and others, let it be,” said retired insurance worker Frank Jong Ly. “If people want this, then let them have it. But they will have to deal with the consequences when they come.”

Suriname’s president is chosen by a two-thirds vote in parliament. Since no faction has that share, the parties must negotiate to choose a new leader. The process could take as long as several weeks because lawmakers must first be sworn in and no date has been set.

Bouterse is chairman of the National Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, which held 15 seats in parliament before Tuesday’s vote. He boosted his following, primarily among young and poor people, with populist promises for more jobs and affordable housing.

Taxi driver Dennis Fernand, 36, said he was thrilled by the election results.

“Now the country will be run in such a way that it will benefit everyone living here,” he said.

Bouterse, 64, expressed interest in the presidency in recent years, but he has not been clear about his intentions since the campaign began.

“I’m not thinking about that right now. If it happens, we will see in the near future,” Bouterse said as he cast his ballot Tuesday afternoon.

The governing New Front coalition won 14 seats. President Ronald Venetiaan, who was not seeking a third consecutive term in the top job, has said his party will not work with Bouterse’s party as long as the former dictator is in control.

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

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

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

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said Wednesday that the Netherlands respects the will of the electorate, but added that “the past can not be forgotten.”

“Mr. Bouterse has been sentenced to an 11-year prison term in the Netherlands for drug dealing, and in Suriname a case about the murders of December 1982 is still proceeding. We cannot brush all that away,” Verhagen said.

Bouterse and 11 others are standing trial on murder charges for the execution of 15 prominent political opponents in 1982. The trial is scheduled to resume at a naval base outside Paramaribo in June. Bouterse has denied any involvement, but he accepted political responsibility in a 2007 public apology.

The U.S. State Department congratulated Suriname on what it said were peaceful, well-organized elections and noted the results are the first of several steps to determine the country’s next leader.

“We do not think it is appropriate to comment further as Suriname’s democratic process is continuing to unfold,” spokeswoman Virginia Staab said.

Associated Press writers Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Mike Melia in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.

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