This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of Leiden University
After the watershed parliamentary elections of 2010, Suriname’s former military dictator Desi Bouterse was installed as the country’s president. While his rise to power in 1980 occurred by means of a military coup, this time Bouterse was democratically elected, receiving the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority required to indirectly elect a president. Upon the termination of his military regime in 1987, when multiparty elections were reintroduced in the small South American country, Bouterse established the National Democratic Party (NDP) to maintain his power base in the democratic system. While the NDP lingered in opposition for most of the subsequent decades, Bouterse gradually constructed a professional political movement that ultimately was able to defeat the traditional Surinamese parties.
As a result of the colonial legacy marked by (forced) migration, Suriname is a profoundly multicultural society, composed of four or five cultural segments, none of which constitutes a majority. Upon the extension of the suffrage in 1948, the first political parties were formed on the basis of ethnic identification and mobilization, with the aim to emancipate, represent, and cater to specific ethnic groups. While the 1980 coup and subsequent military regime aimed to bring an end to ethnic politics, after the return of democracy the old ethnically-based parties reemerged, and won elections in a coalition named New Front. In contrast to the New Front-parties, Bouterse’s NDP was established as an avowedly multi- or pan-ethnic party, claiming to be the only ‘national’ party of Suriname because it seeks to represent all different groups living in the country.
Bouterse’s election to the presidency in 2010 cannot be seen separately from the legal process relating to the so-called December Murders, in which he is the main suspect. During Bouterse’s military regime, on 8 December 1982, fifteen prominent Surinamese men who criticized the dictatorship were murdered by the military. After a lengthy legal investigation by the Surinamese judiciary, in November 2007 – twenty-five years after the crimes were committed – a criminal proceeding against Bouterse and twenty-four other suspects was initiated by Suriname’s military court. According to many observers, this murder trial actually constituted the main motivation for Bouterse to run for president in 2010, anticipating that the presidential office would bring him legal protection and the power to influence the judicial process. Since his election to power in 2010, Bouterse’s NDP has repeatedly attempted to frustrate or bring a halt to the murder trial, most prominently by the adoption of an amnesty law in 2012 and an instruction to the public prosecutor to stop the prosecution in the interest of state security in 2016. Both challenges were dismissed by the military court, which considered these as illegitimate interventions in an ongoing legal process.
Concomitantly to its attempts to undermine the December Murders process, the ruling NDP has in various ways endeavored to weaken the position of Suriname’s judiciary as well as other (semi-) public institutions. High-ranking politicians within the party have argued that unelected judges should not have such wide-ranging powers, and that more mechanisms to control the judiciary should be embedded in the constitution. Moreover, the Surinamese judiciary suffers from a severe lack of government funding, and Bouterse has so far refused to appoint a new President to Suriname’s High Court of Justice. The administration has also sought to challenge the position of the Surinamese media, most recently by the foundation of a well-funded National Information Institute (NII), which officially communicates government information to the public, but largely functions as a propaganda machine that allows politicians to ignore other media outlets. And while corruption has always been a problem in Surinamese politics, under this administration numerous corruption scandals have unfolded and have gone by unpunished. The government’s connections to transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking networks have in fact led some observers to consider the country as a “criminalized state” in which such groups use the international sovereignty of Suriname as a cover for their criminal activities.
In short, therefore, while Bouterse’s current administration operates under the veneer of a nominally democratic system, its ruling style has been decidedly authoritarian in character, and in several ways disturbingly comparable to the military regime he spearheaded in the 1980s.