Suriname: progressive reforms lead to re-election NDP

The general elections in Suriname on May 25th witnessed an overwhelming re-election for the National Democratic Party of Desi Bouterse. This is the result of the reforms which the NDP government instituted over the last 5 years, a period of substantial growth.

The general elections in Suriname on May 25th witnessed an overwhelming re-election for the National Democratic Party (NDP) of Desi Bouterse. The NDP obtained 26 of the 51 seats in the parliament (45.56%), while the main opposition coalition V7 (consisting of 6 political parties) performed poorly, only obtaining 18 seats (37.18%). This means the NDP now has an absolute majority, something it lacked in 2010.

Crucial for this electoral victory was the fact that Bourterse’s government implemented social reforms over the past five years. The government raised pensions, introduced child allowances, abolished school fees, and introduced a minimum wage. Additionally, there have been investments in infrastructure and there has been a house construction programme to build affordable housing. The working people and youth of the former Dutch colony have seen these gains as impressive.

This has made the NDP quite popular, especially among the younger generation. The youth vote has been decisive in bringing about the electoral victory. While the older generation was divided because of Bouterse's past role as leader of a military government of Suriname in the 1980s, for the younger generation this has been no issue.

Meanwhile, many saw the V7 coalition as an alliance of old parties with a negative message: "the NDP spends too much money, we will impose austerity." It also attacked Bouterse and other ministers as being corrupt. While there certainly is corruption which involves government members, it is not a convincing message, as there have been corruption scandals in the past involving members of V7 parties a well. Bouterse won re-election because of the reforms his regime brought, overcoming these fears of corruption.

Bouterse's past in the military regime

Desi Bouterse started his political career as leader of the Sergeants' Coup in 1980. Suriname, which became independent from the Netherlands in 1975, was stuck in an impasse. The formally democratic government of Arron was corrupt, economic growth rates were low and politics were based on rivalries between ethnicity-based parties. The Surinamese ruling class was still tied to Dutch capital and unable to independently develop the country. Under these conditions a group of young sergeants overthrew the government in 1980 and implemented a Bonapartist government, balancing between the working masses and the ruling class, with the aim of achieving an independent road of development for Suriname. This phenomenon is common across the ex-colonial world and is the result of the incapability of the ruling classes to build independently functioning democratic republics. The army raises itself above society and imposes order.

The military regime cut through the ethnic divisions and brought more unity between the Afro-Surinamese, Hindustani and Javanese masses. It nationalised the oil industry and established relations with Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada, in order to become more independent from the Netherlands and the USA. However, the regime was incapable of truly bringing Suriname forward. Threats of counter coups and developing opposition culminated in the infamous December Murders, where 15 opponents of the regime were shot without trial. These included some oppositionist journalists and lawyers, but also Bram Behr, the leader of the Communist Party.

From this point on the regime gradually degenerated. There was increasing repression, the closure of the University of Suriname, and the tops of the regime became increasingly involved in the drug trade as investments from the Netherlands plummeted. Splits on the top led to a guerrilla war, in which Bouterse's former bodyguard Brunswijk fought for control over the east of the country, and in which both sides committed atrocities.

Eventually the dire economic problems and the changing international situation of the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the weakening of the grip of the military over Surinamese society. This meant a restoration of bourgeois democracy, with a series of mostly neoliberal governments in the 1990s and 2000s.

Bouterse's return to politics

After the 2010 elections Bouterse got back into government. All of the media focused on his past as military leader of the country, the December Murders, and Bouterse's conviction in the Netherlands for drug smuggling.

None of the media attention was about the program on which his party was elected. Bouterse's program was one of social reforms for the masses and building a better infrastructure, based on utilising the revenues of the country's oil and gold wealth. It is no surprise that he won on that program. The preceding years had seen many progressive governments in Latin America implementing reforms, basing themselves on economic growth and in some cases on the nationalisation of natural resources. The revolutionary wave that swept Latin America in the 2000s started to reach Suriname by 2010.

The truth is that the NDP government was able to implement a big part of its electoral promises. This has been the result of a period of high economic growth and relatively high oil and gold prices. It's exactly because of these successes that Bouterse was able to win re-election. While in 2010 Bouterse managed to get 23 seats in an electoral coalition (the Mega Combination), now his party the NDP managed to win 27 seats on its own.

This way Bouterse has managed to consolidate his popularity amongst the younger generation especially. Of course he also has had its own motives for engaging in his new political career. Being president means he will be immune for prosecution from the Netherlands. It also was an opportunity to whitewash the past. In 2012 a controversial law passed that grants immunity to the suspects of the December Murders (a trial that was going on in that period).

Hypocrisy of the Dutch ruling class

The reaction of the Dutch ruling class and its mouthpieces has been very hypocritical. They raise a hue and cry about how the Surinamese people are stupid and voted for a murderer and drug trader again. Nevertheless, even they had to admit that Bouterse had implemented substantial progressive reforms.

While we condemn the December Murders, it is clear that the reaction of the Dutch ruling class is very hypocritical. The real reason they are against Bouterse is that he did not follow their dictates and dared defy them during the military regime of the 1980s. Recent revelations found that there even were plans for a joint Dutch-American invasion of Suriname in the 1980s in order to topple the regime and install a government of pro-Dutch oppositionists living in the Netherlands.

They never use the same standards for their other allies. For example, in 1970 the Netherlands re-established connections with its other former colony, Indonesia, where general Soeharto took power in 1965 through a coup d'état where more than a million communists, progressives and ethnic Chinese were killed. The Dutch welcomed Soeharto as a new ally while he killed tens of thousands times as many people as the military rulers in Suriname. Even when Soeharto died in 2008, the Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen praised the mass murderer for "bringing economic growth, progress and stability".

We should also remember that the role of the Dutch state itself in the 1980 coup still is unclear. The mentor of the young sergeants who carried out the coup was the Dutch colonel Hans Valk, who died in 2012. What is clear is that Colonel Valk at least was involved on a personal basis. The Dutch government obstructed an official investigation into the matter, which had classified two documents and addendums as state secrets, which will not become available until 2060. The official reason for this: "the privacy of the people involved." This means it is very probable the Dutch state at least knew about the 1980 coup and maybe even wanted to use it to bring some temporary order.

The Dutch ruling class could never forgive Bouterse for his role in the military regime, where he steered a more independent course. After civilian rule returned in the late 1980s, the Dutch wanted to punish him. The drug activities of Surinamese state officials made this very easy and Bouterse was convicted in 1999 of smuggling cocaine to the Netherlands. The fact that this man became president of Suriname in 2010 and thus became immune for extradition was an extra slap in the face of the Dutch government. Relations between the countries worsened and the Dutch - with help from the USA -tried to isolate Suriname internationally.

In 2012, after the Amnesty Law passed, the Netherlands recalled their ambassador. According to the Dutch government, the passage of the law was a big scandal and an insult to the victims of the regime. However, the ruling classes have used this argument very selectively throughout history. Western governments praised the so-called 'reconciliation commissions' in Argentina, Chile and South Africa for their ‘humanity.’ This while these commissions led to amnesty for many times as many murderers who still walk the streets of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Johannesburg. Does that not constitute a big insult for their victims?

The Dutch failed in their aim of isolation. Dampened relations with the Netherlands and the USA meant opportunities for French and Chinese investors. Meanwhile, relations with Venezuela, Guyana and other Latin American and Caribbean countries strengthened. The fact that these ties were almost non-existent and there are almost no infrastructural connections with other Latin American countries, shows to what extent the Surinamese ruling class has been subjected to Dutch imperialism. As isolation failed, the Dutch have re-installed their ambassador and now are carefully trying to re-establish ties, in order not to completely lose their historical position in the country.


Bouterse's NDP won an absolute majority. This means they can rule without much opposition for the coming five years. These years will however be much less favorable than the past five years. While in the past five years the Latin American continent as a whole witnessed quite high growth rates, these are now going down. The main reason for that has been the slowing down of the Chinese economy, which demanded many raw materials. Many Latin American countries provided the raw materials for China, enabling them to profit greatly from the Chinese boom. Meanwhile, the prices of oil and gold have gone down in the last few years - especially the oil prices, which declined quite sharply in 2014. This will mean less revenue for the Surinamese government in the coming years.

The Bouterse government already ran a budget deficit of over 5% and its public debt has increased. Less revenue means the government will have to rely on more deficit financing. This will increase the inflation, which will eat into the income of the poorest layers the most and undo the gains of the social reforms implemented by the Bouterse government.

The opposition coalition V7 argued against deficit financing and for austere policies. This led to their electoral defeat. However, we will have to see how Bouterse's next government will act in less favorable circumstances. Austerity policies will put an end to the NDP's big popularity, as will growing inflation, as these both will hurt the masses. Under capitalism it will always be the working class and the poor who will have to bear the brunt of the crisis. The crux is that under capitalism there is no lasting solution. Gains and reforms can be made, but they can also be taken away.

The task of the Surinamese Marxists is to explain that the social reforms that the Bourterse government implemented can only be defended by doing away with the capitalist system, which acts like a straitjacket, and replacing it with socialism. For that it is necessary to take full control over the economy by nationalising the natural resources and other main industries under democratic workers' control. What is lacking is an independent class policy. The progressive and labour parties have traditionally been part of some electoral coalition, either with Bouterse (PALU) or with one of the bourgeois democratic coalitions (SPA). Next to that, they have a narrow Suriname-centred vision. Suriname is a small country which is dependent on the world market. It's impossible to build socialism in Suriname alone. Socialist Suriname can only be part of a democratic Socialist Federation of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The task of the Surinamese Marxists is to build cadres who can explain this and intervene in the movement, while orienting in a friendly and patient manner towards the young workers and students who support the NDP. This doesn't mean supporting Bouterse, but neither does it mean joining the chorus of his 'democratic' opponents. It means fighting for a class independent policy, for a revolutionary socialist policy.

Build the forces of Marxism in Suriname! Join the IMT!

12 June 2015

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