The Last Hurrah: The End of Ethnic Politics in Suriname

By Brana-Shute, Gary | Hemisphere, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

The Last Hurrah: The End of Ethnic Politics in Suriname


Brana-Shute, Gary, Hemisphere


Newspapers in the United States and, especially, the Netherlands, trumpeted the May 1996 victory of the multiethnic New Front over former military commander and one-time dictator Desi Bouterse's National Democratic Front (NDP) as Suriname's conclusive return to and preference for "democracy." The forces of evil--not to mention abundant patronage--were held at bay.

The victory was a slim one. Composed of the Afro-Creole Suriname National Party (NPS), the East Indian Progressive Reform Party (VHP), the Javanese Party of National Unity and Harmony (KTPI), and a small Creole-dominated labor party, the Suriname Labor Party (SPA), the delicately balanced New Front coalition scored 24 of the 51 National Assembly seats. The statist NDP, headed by Desi Bouterse since his removal as Commander-in-Chief of the military in 1992, weighed in with 16 seats. The Democratic Alternative (DA) '91, comprised of multiethnic yuppies, got four; Pendawalima, a Javanese splinter party, surprised all and copped four; while Alliantie, a breakaway group from the NDP, won a modest three. Less than 60 percent of the electorate turned out.

Our first revelation is that no one party has a majority to form a government in Suriname's parliamentary system. Eugenia Charles's warning resonates--"Coalitions don't work in the Caribbean." Second, in the context of Suriname's arcane laws, the Speaker of the Assembly (a post long-held by Jagarnath Lachmon, octogenarian leader of the VHP), requires a majority vote (26) of the Assembly--which he barely received in late July. Both the President and the Vice President of the Republic must be elected by the National Assembly with a two-thirds majority vote (34). If the majority vote is not achieved, the selection process is thrown into a nationwide forum of local, district, and nationally elected officials, numbering 869 participants (51 national parliamentarians, 106 district representatives, and 712 subdistrict officials). This setback occurred in 1991 and it took five months to seat an executive. Electoral results since the first postdictatorship elections in 1987 have shown a marked decline in the fortunes of the (New) Front.

I will spare the reader the intricacies, betrayals, personality spats, and policy disputes which culminated in party breakups, realignments, and the emergence of new coalitions. The salient point is that in Suriname, the opposition outnumbers the New Front by 27 to 24 and the New Front is compelled to make a coalition government. Meanwhile, the successes of the NDP have grown consistently and dramatically since its first post-dictatorship run at the polls-when the NDP clearly was the political arm of the military. In fact, the NDP's gain from 1991 to 1996 is greater than the apparent four seats since two members of the NDP broke away to form Alliantie, thus making the absolute gain of the NDP leap from a real base of 10 to 16.

THE DECLINE OF THE NEW FRONT

How then do we account for the continuing decline of the multiethnic New Front, the surge in strength of the NDP, and the ongoing social and economic problems which plague Suriname's "race to nationhood over ethnic terrain," as Brakette Williams snappily sums up the conundrum?

In describing Suriname, tourist brochures use words and phrases such as luscious, fecund, a tropical paradise, and a veritable United Nations with each ethnic group's bountiful hospitality surpassing the other. This codification was never true. With yearly visits, I have seen a nation grow desperate, cynical, anxious, and hostile. The urban proletariat is impoverished, the middle class lives on the edge of bankruptcy, and youth are disenfranchised and have given up on the neocolonial politics of the old Fronters and their grey-beard supporters. Revenues from narcotics transshipping and money laundering flow through the country's veins--keeping it alive--together with wildcat gold mining along the Litani and Maroni Rivers, and uncontrolled timber cutting in Surinaine's vast jungle interior. …

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