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article imageStrongman looms large as Suriname votes

By Ranu Abhelakh (AFP)     May 25, 2015 in World

Suriname voted in general elections Monday with its convicted drug trafficker president, Desi Bouterse, seeking to tighten his controversial grip on power.

Bouterse, who has ruled the small South American country on and off since 1980, is looking to end his alliance with one-time nemesis Ronnie Brunswijk and preside over the first non-coalition democratic government in Suriname's history.

Bouterse's National Democratic Party formed a government at the last elections in 2010 by forging a motley mega-coalition, returning him to power for the second time since his 1980-1987 military government.

But after the coalition fell apart, the NDP decided to go it alone, buoyed by strong standings in opinion polls.

The party needs to win at least 26 seats in the 51-member National Assembly to govern alone, and 34 seats to re-elect Bouterse -- the president is chosen by a two-thirds majority of parliament.

Bouterse, who has been a two-time coup leader, dictator and international fugitive, was greeted by hordes of singing, cheering supporters as he arrived to cast his ballot at a school in the capital Paramaribo.

Socio-economic factfile on Suriname
Socio-economic factfile on Suriname
A. Reta, AFP

"After the people have spoken then the real work will start. We will continue our policy, with some adjustments. There is still a lot of work to be done," he said after casting his ballot.

"Depending on how many seats we get, we will work together with those who think positively and it would be good to have strong, stable government."

His main opponent is Chan Santokhi, the leader of the V7, a six-party opposition coalition.

The V7, which has a broad ethnic base in the racially diverse country -- whose 500,000 people have roots in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas -- accuses Bouterse of massive corruption.

"We have had a strong campaign and we are convinced we will get the majority to rule on our own," Santokhi said as he cast his ballot.

The third main group in the election fray, and possible powerbroker, is the Alternative Combination alliance led by Brunswijk, a former guerrilla leader who fought a civil war against Bouterse's military government before teaming up with his former foe in 2010.

The party's base are the Maroons, the descendants of fugitive slaves who set up settlements in the Surinamese interior.

- Dictator turned president -

SurinamÂ’e's opposition leader Chandrikapersad Santokhi votes at a polling station in Lelydorp ...
SurinamÂ’e's opposition leader Chandrikapersad Santokhi votes at a polling station in Lelydorp, Wanica, Surinam on May 25, 2015
Louis Alfaisie, AFP

The smallest country in South America, Suriname was colonized by the British and Dutch and gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975.

Five years later, a group of sergeants led by Bouterse overthrew prime minister Henck Arron and installed a military government.

Whether in his dictator's fatigues and sunglasses or his sharp president's suit, Bouterse, 69, has loomed large over the country's politics ever since.

His regime put down two counter-coups and rounded up and executed 15 opponents in 1982, an event known as the "December killings."

Bouterse stepped down in 1987, but returned to power in 1990 in a second, bloodless coup.

After leaving power a second time, Bouterse was indicted and court-martialed for the December killings, but his coalition passed a controversial amnesty law in 2012 that aborted the trial.

Citizens line up to vote at a polling station during the general elections in Paramaribo on May 25  ...
Citizens line up to vote at a polling station during the general elections in Paramaribo on May 25, 2015
Louis Alfaisie, AFP

Santokhi, a former police commissioner who once investigated the killings, has vowed to repeal the amnesty law if elected.

The president and his family have faced a host of other legal woes, adding to the country's reputation for drug running, money laundering and graft.

The Netherlands convicted him in absentia of cocaine smuggling in 1999, but he remained free because Suriname does not extradite its citizens.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court rejected his third bid to have the conviction overturned.

The country's 350,000 registered voters were also electing their district and local representatives.

Counting got under way soon after polling stations closed late Monday.

The first, partial results were expected hours, with a projection of the full results early Tuesday.

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