Suriname is a constitutional democracy that holds generally free and fair elections. However, corruption and clientelism are pervasive problems in society and in the government, undermining the rule of law. In 2020, a new government was elected, and the country’s new leaders have promised to tackle graft and abuses of state power.
- Suriname was seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to researchers at the University of Oxford, the country had registered over 6,200 cases and over 120 deaths by the end of 2020.
- In elections held in May 2020, the administration of President Dési Bouterse was defeated by the Progressive Reform Party (VHP) led by Chandrikapersad Santokhi, who was elected president by the National Assembly in July. Ronnie Brunswijk, the powerful leader of the General Liberation and Development Party (ABOP), was selected as vice president.
- Anticorruption efforts increased during the year. The public prosecutor’s office established a dedicated anticorruption unit, and graft investigations resulted in detention orders for several high-ranking officials from the Bouterse government.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president is chief of state and head of government, and is elected to five-year terms by a two-thirds majority of the 51-seat National Assembly. If no such majority can be reached, a United People’s Assembly—consisting of lawmakers from the national, regional, and local levels—convenes to choose the president by a simple majority. In July 2020, the freely elected National Assembly elected President Santokhi and Vice President Brunswijk in accordance with the law.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The 1987 constitution provides for a unicameral, 51-seat National Assembly. Representatives are elected for five-year terms via proportional representation. Observer missions from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of American States (OAS) described the May 2020 elections as free and fair, while noting delays in the vote count, which had fueled speculation about fraud. The OAS also noted some problems with election administration, including ballot misprints and deliveries of ballot papers to the wrong polling stations. Nonetheless, no serious concerns were raised about the announced results, and the Independent Electoral Council (OKB) certified the elections in June. The VHP led all parties with 20 seats, Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) followed with 16, the ABOP won 8, and three smaller parties split the remaining seven seats.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
Electoral laws generally meet international standards of fairness. However, the president appoints the members of the OKB and has the power to fire them, raising concerns about impartiality. In March 2019, the National Assembly approved electoral reforms that had been proposed by the Bouterse government in late 2018, including a prohibition on electoral alliances among political parties. The head of the OKB, Jennifer Van Dijk-Silos, acknowledged significant disorganization in the administration of the 2020 balloting.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Suriname’s many political parties, which often reflect the country’s ethnic cleavages, generally form and operate freely. However, fierce political competition occasionally includes acts of violence or intimidation.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
The country has experienced multiple transfers of power between rival parties, and the opposition has a realistic opportunity to increase its support or enter government through elections, as demonstrated by the orderly transition in July 2020.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
People’s political choices are generally not subject to undue coercion. However, opposition parties have raised concerns about campaign financing—which is unregulated and lacks transparency—and the resulting influence that special interest groups can have on parties and candidates. During the 2020 election campaign, the incumbent NDP was accused of engaging in clientelism by distributing food to citizens. Similar tactics, including distribution of money and funding of community projects using politicians’ personal wealth, are used by multiple political parties. The Santokhi government also continued the entrenched practice of dispensing appointments to family members of high-ranking officials.
The period preceding the 2020 elections was characterized by intimidation of supporters of the opposition. In April 2020, assailants attempted to kidnap an opposition parliamentary candidate, Rodney Cairo, who had criticized the military’s role in providing security at gold mining operations. National Security Directorate head Danielle Vieira was accused of ordering the act, and an investigation remained ongoing at year’s end. Following the inauguration of the Santokhi government, there were no reported cases of intimidation against opponents.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
Parties are often formed along ethnic lines, meaning most ethnic groups have political representation. Women have historically played a limited role in politics, but have experienced gains in recent years; in 2020, 15 out of the 51 representatives elected to the National Assembly were women, compared with 13 women in 2015. The Santokhi-Brunswijk cabinet included 6 women among its 17 ministers. The interests of Maroons, the descendants of escaped slaves, are directly represented in the government, as Vice President Brunswijk’s ABOP party is the largest party among Maroons. Indigenous people are poorly represented in politics, and discrimination against LGBT+ people has resulted in no openly gay politicians in the country.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The country’s freely elected representatives are able to determine laws and government policies without undue interference. The Bouterse government used its narrow parliamentary majority to avoid accountability for politically advantageous actions that appeared to exceed its legitimate authority, especially related to state finances and spending. In its initial months, the Santokhi administration refrained from executive overreach.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the Santokhi administration refrained from abusing state power and exhibiting excessive control over other branches of government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Government corruption is pervasive. In 2017, the National Assembly adopted a new anticorruption law, updating past laws that were severely outdated. The legislation had yet to be implemented as of 2020, but the Santokhi government appointed a commission to plan implementation and funded a special anticorruption unit within the public prosecutor’s office that has begun investigating Bouterse-era graft cases. The most prominent case in 2020 involved former finance minister Gillmore Hoefdraad, accused of perpetrating multiple fraud and embezzlement schemes. Hoefdraad fled and was the subject of both a domestic arrest warrant and an Interpol detention request. The former head of Suriname’s Central Bank, Robert Van Trikt, was imprisoned for fraud in the same case in February 2020, and remained in custody throughout the year. In a separate case, former vice president Ashwin Adhin was arrested in November 2020 for alleged destruction and misappropriation of property.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
The government often does not operate with transparency. The Bouterse government channeled almost all information through the National Information Institute (NII), which functions as a centralized state publicity agency. Officials are not required to disclose information about their finances in practice, despite disclosure provisions in the 2017 anticorruption law.
Suriname does not have laws to facilitate access to public information, and access is limited in practice. However, the Santokhi government has communicated with greater transparency, including via regular press conferences at which journalists can ask questions of the president and vice president. Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the new government has committed to openly publishing information, and is more responsive to inquiries from the press.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution guarantees press freedom, and the media sector is fairly diverse. The press frequently publishes stories that are critical of the government, though some journalists engage in self-censorship in response to pressure and intimidation from authorities. Bouterse administration officials regularly used state media to verbally attack journalists whose work they found objectionable.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is typically upheld in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution, and there are no formal constraints on the expression of personal views among the general public. Government officials’ verbal intimidation of perceived critics, which deterred open discussion of sensitive topics in recent years, declined following the 2020 election, as did the overall level of political discord.
Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 because the current government has refrained from targeting ordinary citizens and members of political parties who engage in critical speech.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, which is generally respected in practice.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) function freely in Suriname.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
3 / 4
Workers are free to join independent trade unions, which are actively involved in politics. There have been isolated reports of private-sector employers denying collective bargaining rights to unions.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The judiciary has enjoyed improved autonomy since the change of government, but is still undermined by corruption and characterized by financial dependence on executive agencies.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Obstacles to due process include a lack of capacity and resources that contributes to corruption and trial delays. The public prosecutor’s office often pursues cases selectively, and low wages for police encourage bribery and extortion. Payments are sometimes made to obtain favorable outcomes in criminal and civil proceedings. There is a backlog of cases involving non-Dutch speakers, as interpreters who have gone unpaid have refused to work additional cases. Pretrial detention, even for minor crimes, is common and can sometimes last for years. However, the judiciary is operating more independently since the change of administration in 2020, with more investigations for criminal conduct and less evident protection for politically favored allies.
In November 2019, President Bouterse was convicted and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for the abduction and murder of 15 political opponents during his time as a military ruler in 1982. Bouterse has accepted “political responsibility” for his involvement, but he long sought to disrupt legal proceedings against him. While his immunity as head of state lapsed with his departure from office in July 2020, the appeal of his conviction remained ongoing, and he remained free throughout the year.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 because prosecutors have shown more independence in pursuing cases, including those involving alleged corruption by powerful state officials.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The population is generally free from major threats to physical security. The use of excessive force by law enforcement officials is prohibited, but some cases of police abuse have been reported, including during enforcement of the lockdown imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Temporary detention facilities are characterized by unhygienic conditions, understaffing, and overcrowding. Suriname lies on a major drug-trafficking route, giving rise to some trafficking-related violence. Both former president Bouterse and current vice president Brunswijk have been convicted in absentia of drug trafficking in the Netherlands. Violent crimes such as burglary and armed robbery are common, and police resources are insufficient to address the problem. The gold mining industry, a key export sector, is plagued by organized criminal activity.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Nevertheless, the Maroon and Indigenous people in the hinterland face inequality in areas such as education and employment.
Same-sex sexual relations are legal, though the age of consent differs from that applied to opposite-sex couples. Despite legal protections adopted in 2015, members of the LGBT+ community face societal discrimination, harassment, and abuse by police.
The constitution bars gender discrimination, but in practice, women experience disadvantages in access to employment and education.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
The government generally upholds constitutional freedoms of internal movement and residence, though the lack of protections for Indigenous and Maroon lands leaves those communities vulnerable to displacement.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Although Suriname’s constitution guarantees property rights, they are sometimes inadequately protected. Corruption can hinder private business activity, especially regarding land policy, government contracts, and licensing. Indigenous and other minority groups remain exposed to illegal land expropriation, including by logging and mining operations. Traditional land rights of Indigenous peoples and Maroons are not guaranteed by law, though a draft bill to regulate collective rights was introduced in parliament in 2020. Women face inequality related to inheritance and property due to discriminatory local customs.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals are generally free of undue constraints on personal status decisions such as marriage and divorce. However, domestic violence remains a serious problem, and laws that criminalize it are not well enforced.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Despite government efforts to combat it, trafficking in persons remains a serious problem. Women and migrant workers are especially at risk of sexual exploitation and forced labor in various industries. Construction and mining work often do not receive adequate attention from labor inspectors. The deteriorating economy in Venezuela has increased the vulnerability of Venezuelan women to sex trafficking in Suriname. Corruption has facilitated the criminal activities of traffickers.
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