Mark Wilson #2

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

IT takes talent to get away with murder. Suriname’s president Desi Bouterse was convicted in November of murdering 15 political opponents, back in 1982. His country’s voters go to the polls in ten days’ time, on May 25. That’s when Suriname marks the Eid public holiday. He stands every chance of another term.

That will be the Caribbean’s first Covid-19 election. It won’t be the last. St Kitts-Nevis must vote by August 13, T&T by December. Elections are approaching also in Anguilla, Belize, St Vincent and Jamaica.

Social distancing won’t sit well with the Caribbean style of mass rallies and press-the-flesh walkabouts. But Bouterse will gain big-time brownie points from his pandemic performance.

He slammed Suriname’s airports shut on March 13, when the first coronavirus patient was identified. That was followed swiftly by an internal lockdown.

Ten cases were confirmed soon after—one of them the French ambassador. One patient died. Nine have recovered. There have been no new cases since the start of April. Returning residents are allowed back but must be quarantined—509 are currently confined.

So who is Desi Bouterse? He’s been around a long time. Now 74, he seized power in 1980 as a young army sergeant and boxing coach, and installed himself as chairman of a national military council which ruled through the 1980s. He waged a bloody civil war against his opponents. That’s when his 15 murder victims —trade unionists, academics, journalists—were arrested, tortured and shot.

He was convicted of cocaine trafficking in his absence by a Netherlands court in 1999, though he maintains his innocence. His son Dino was convicted of drug trafficking and theft in 2005, and then of drug trafficking and terrorism in a US court in 2013. He is now serving 16 years.

Suriname’s voters take a relaxed view of that sort of thing. After a spell in opposition, Bouterse was democratically elected president in May 2010—also the month of Kamla Persad-Bissessar’s T&T landslide— and won a second term five years later. Is he now on track for a third?

On May 25, Suriname’s voters elect a 51-member National Assembly by proportional representation. There’s no direct vote for a president. The Assembly can elect a candidate if there’s a two-thirds majority. Otherwise, the choice goes to the United People’s Assembly, an unwieldy 919-member gathering of national and local government representatives, voting by simple majority in a secret ballot.

Bouterse’s main opponents are long-established ethnic parties, representing Indo- and Afro-Surinamese, Javanese and maroons from the interior. Unlike T&T and Guyana, Suriname’s ethnic parties work well together—from 2000 to 2010, their New Front alliance formed the government.

But this time, Bouterse has pushed through a nifty constitutional amendment outlawing pre-election alliances. With each opposition party putting up its own candidates, there is no clear leadership alternative to Bouterse’s National Democratic Party, just a mish-mash. Excitement levels seem low, despite experiments with drive-in and on-line mass meetings.

Who is ahead? There have been no opinion polls this year, so we’re in guesswork-land. Nobody is likely to win a two-thirds National Assembly majority, so that would mean a People’s Assembly, probably in August. With almost a thousand little-known local government representatives making the pick, there’s scope to bring pressure, through fair means or foul.

With Bouterse no longer in his first, fresh youth, he may even choose to hand over, perhaps to his 39-year-old vice president Ashwin Adhin.

The most likely opposition candidate is Chan Santhokhi, leader of the mainly Indo-Surinamese Progressive Reform Party, a former justice minister and former police chief who led the investigation into Bouterse’s 1982 murders.

And the economy? Apache and Total had a big find in January, perhaps 300 million barrels of oil and 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, and a second in April. We’re not talking Guyana numbers yet, and bringing the stuff onshore will take five years or more —but by then, who knows, oil prices may be looking up.

Suriname’s big export is gold, always the investor’s safe haven in times of crisis. Gold prices are one-third higher than a year ago and close to all-time highs.

But for most Surinamese, the mismanaged economy is in deep trouble. The central bank still posts an official exchange rate of 7.5 Suriname dollars to one US. Legislation passed in March to enforce this rate was predictably ineffective, and was in any case suspended after a legal challenge. Most imports are now paid for on the black market, at perhaps twice the official rate. Inflation has soared since January. Pockets are hurting.

Financial policy is chaotic. The former central bank governor has been in custody since February, charged with malpractice. The public prosecutor wants to charge the finance minister Gilmore Hoefdraad, but parliament has blocked that move.

Many voters are more interested in cash-in-hand than legal niceties. And Bouterse has been spending big. Some state benefits have been doubled. There are special funds for home repairs, and for the newly unemployed. For the needy, there are grocery hampers by the thousand.

Which counts more—split peas and chicken, or a 38-year-old murder rap? Check back when it’s over.

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