Suriname opposition predicts election win after early results

Ranu ABHELAKH
Lawmakers in Suriname have elected Chan Santokhi to serve as president, replacing longtime leader Desi Bouterse

Suriname's main opposition leader Chandrikapersad Santokhi on Tuesday predicted victory for his Progressive Reform Party (VHP) in the country's legislative elections after 46 percent of the votes had been counted.

Early results in the South American nation of 600,000 people showed that President Desi Bouterse, who was recently convicted of murder, could be ousted from office.

"We will become the largest party in Suriname," said Santokhi, as supporters danced, sang and hailed their leader as the next president while they watched results trickle in on a large screen at party headquarters.

The VHP dropped previous alliances to run in Monday's election on its own.

"We have worked hard the past five years," Santokhi said.

Bouterse, 74, a former military dictator turned politician, has led Suriname for half of the last four decades, but polls had forecast his National Democratic Party (NDP) was likely to lose its majority in the 51-member parliament which elects the president.

The NDP made no comment to the media early on Tuesday.

Authorities lifted a partial coronavirus lockdown for election day and voters lined up at 1.5-meter (five-foot) intervals before the polls opened.

Officials dabbed blue ink on the voters' fingers with an ear swab rather than letting them dip their fingers in an ink pot.

A mobile polling station was also set up at the Zorghotel in the capital Paramaribo for 187 people in coronavirus quarantine.

- December killings -

Bouterse was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison by a military court for ordering executions during a previous military dictatorship.

He first took power in a 1980 coup and in 1982 allegedly rounded up and executed 15 political opponents, including lawyers, journalists and businessmen.

The incident, known as the "December killings," was investigated by Santokhi, a former justice minister and police commissioner.

Bouterse appealed his conviction and the case was postponed until June due to the pandemic.

Just over 380,000 people were eligible to vote in the Dutch-speaking and ethnically-diverse nation.

Once the new assembly has been sworn in, its 51 members will vote for the new president, who will need a two-thirds majority to be elected.

It means that the governing or largest party will likely still need a coalition to elect its leader as president.

Having ruled as a dictator from 1980-87, and seized power briefly a second time in a bloodless coup in 1990, Bouterse was first elected as president in 2010.

A year earlier he was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a Dutch court for cocaine smuggling, a charge he denies.

His election as president gave him immunity from extradition to serve his sentence in the Netherlands.

But even if re-elected, Bouterse would still go to jail if he doesn't win his appeal against the murder conviction.

The NDP campaigned on its strong track record of substantially increasing social welfare, introducing mandatory health and pension insurances, carrying out major infrastructure projects and granting property to the landless.

Opposition parties, though, accused the Bouterse administration of numerous corruption scandals and have warned that the country cannot afford the NDP's spending.

A formal declaration of the election results is due within a month while the new president should be sworn in before August 13.