Suriname’s ex-dictator joins one-time rebel leader in alliance to form government coalition

By Arny Belfor, AP
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Former dictator, rebel forge alliance in Suriname

PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Suriname’s former dictator and the man who led a rebel army against his military regime agreed Thursday to form a coalition government, uniting two adversaries with little in common beyond matching drug-trafficking convictions in the Netherlands.

Two-time coup leader and presidential hopeful Desi Bouterse embraced Ronnie Brunswijk and celebrated with a champagne toast during a signing ceremony at a hotel in Paramaribo, the capital.

Bouterse’s alliance came first in parliamentary elections last week, claiming 23 of 51 seats. The partnership with Brunswijk’s coalition, which controls seven seats, will give them a majority but not the two-thirds support needed to name a president.

“An invisible hand has led this process to this point. And we can trust that this hand will lead us into making the right decisions for this country,” Bouterse said.

A partnership between the two was once unimaginable.

In the 1980s, Brunswijk — who had served as Bouterse’s bodyguard — led an armed force largely made up of Maroons, the descendants of runaway African slaves, against his former boss in a civil war that killed hundreds of people.

Brunswijk narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1989 during peace talks in Bouterse’s office in Paramaribo. Two of Brunswijk’s bodyguards were killed.

But he said Thursday that was all in the past.

“I make this toast to a fruitful partnership and cooperation, hoping we can trust each other and count on one another,” Brunswijk said

The two men were convicted separately of cocaine trafficking by Dutch courts in 1999. Bouterse was sentenced in absentia to 11 years in prison; Brunswijk, to eight years. Suriname has refused to extradite either one.

Bouterse is also facing trial at home in the slaying of 15 political opponents during his regime in 1982, and some in the former Dutch colony of 500,000 see his candidacy as a gambit for immunity from prosecution.

The Netherlands, one of Suriname’s biggest aid donors, has warned that relations will be strained if Bouterse takes power.

Bouterse’s Mega Combination coalition made gains in the May 25 election with populist pledges for more jobs and affordable housing. He reached out unsuccessfully to other blocs before sealing the agreement with Brunswijk’s Maroon-based A-Combination, which is currently part of the governing coalition.

One A-Combination official, Health Minister Celsius Waterberg, said he was frustrated with the governing coalition for blocking proposals to make health care more accessible.

“We were guaranteed by the Mega Combination that the new health care system will be implemented as soon as possible. If the New Front coalition had taken my advice and implemented this bill, they would remain in power,” Waterberg said.

Officials from Bouterse’s coalition said they will meet in the coming days to select a Cabinet and develop strategy for the presidential election.

Suriname’s president is not chosen directly by voters. A candidate requires a two-thirds majority vote in parliament to become president. If a leader is not chosen in two rounds, the choice goes to the People’s Assembly, comprising 868 members of regional councils across the country.

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