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Legislative elections scheduled for May 2005 dominated Suriname's political debate in 2004, with speculation over whether the ruling New Front (NF) would prevail in the face of the surprising popularity of the party of a former dictator of Suriname.
The Republic of Suriname achieved independence from The Netherlands in 1975, which had acquired it as a result of the Treaty of Breda with the British in 1667. Five years after independence, a military coup, which brought Desi Bouterse to power as the head of a regime that brutally suppressed civic and political opposition, initiated a decade of military intervention in politics. In 1987, Bouterse permitted elections that were won handily by the NF, a four-party coalition of mainly East Indian, Creole, and Javanese parties. The National Democratic Party (NDP), organized by the military, won just three seats.
In 1990, the army ousted President Ramsewak Shankar and Bouterse again took power, this time in a bloodless putsch popularly known as the "telephone coup." International pressure led to new elections in 1991. The center-right NF won a majority, although the NDP increased its share to 12. The National Assembly selected the NF's candidate, Ronald Venetiaan, as president. Bouterse quit the army in 1992 in order to lead the NDP. In the May 25, 2000, legislative elections, the NF won the majority of 51 National Assembly seats - three times as many as its closest rival.
The May 2001 death of a labor leader who was to be the star witness in a trial against Bouterse and others accused of 15 political killings committed on December 8, 1982, initially appeared to rob the prosecution of key testimony. However, the government vowed that testimony given by the witness during a preliminary hearing would be submitted in the trial by the judge who questioned him. The death of the lone survivor of the December 1982 massacre came amid a renewed push by the Dutch to bring Bouterse to account for the murders and for his role in the 1982 coup. He had already been tried and convicted by a Dutch court in absentia on charges of having introduced more than two tons of cocaine into The Netherlands between 1989 and 1997. Suriname did not extradite Bouterse to The Netherlands because of a bilateral agreement not to extradite their own citizens to each other's country.
In October 2002, authorities from neighboring Guyana complained that Suriname is a major supply route for illegal arms used in a crime wave gripping the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. The spillover effects of narcotics trafficking and the drug trade's ties to top political leaders - including Bouterse - continued to make the news.
In October 2003, a judge gave more than 50 convicted cocaine traffickers light sentences in an effort by the government to reduce overcrowding in the country's jails. The UN Drug Control Agency estimates that 20 tons of cocaine is smuggled annually through Suriname to Europe alone. Also in October, Dino Bouterse - the son of Desi Bouterse - was acquitted by a military court of stealing more than 80 guns, including twenty-one AK-47 assault rifles, from the government's secret service compound. The court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
In 2004, legislative elections scheduled for May 2005 dominated Suriname's political debate, with observers saying that the ruling NF coalition headed by President Venetiaan appeared posed to capitalize on the country's new-found price and exchange-rate stability. However, a July public opinion poll by the Institute for Demographic Research showed surprising strength for Bouterse's NDP, which placed less than 1 percent behind the NF. The relatively weak showing by the NF reflected voter discontent, in part, with the side effects of the government's fiscal austerity program, which helped to stabilize both prices and the economy generally.
Citizens of Suriname can change their government democratically. The 1987 constitution provides for a 51-seat National Assembly, directly elected by proportional representation, which serves a five-year term and selects the state president. A Council of State (Raad van State), consisting of the president and representatives of the major political groupings, including unions, business, the military, and the legislature, has veto power over legislation deemed to violate the constitution.
Political parties largely reflect the cleavages in Suriname's ethnically complex society, although political-racial discord is much less than in neighboring Guyana. A record number of 23 parties competed in the 2000 elections.
The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2004 Index of Economic Freedom found that corruption is rampant in Suriname, regulations are applied randomly, and there is a general level of very high regulation. Favoritism, particularly at elite levels, is common in business and government. Suriname was ranked 49 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of expression. Radio is both public and private. A number of small commercial radio stations compete with the government-owned radio and television broadcasting systems, which generally offer pluralistic viewpoints. The government does not restrict access to the Internet. Public access to government information is recognized in law; however, it is very limited in practice.
The government generally respects freedom of religion and does not restrict academic freedom.
Although civic institutions remain weak, human rights organizations function freely. Freedom of assembly and association are provided for in the constitution, and the government respected these rights in practice. Workers can join independent trade unions, and the labor movement is active in politics. Collective bargaining is legal and conducted fairly widely. Civil servants have no legal right to strike.
The judiciary is weak and susceptible to political influence and suffers from ineffectiveness, a significant shortage of judges, and a large backlog of cases. The courts and the prisons are seriously overburdened by the volume of people detained for narcotics trafficking. The civilian police abuse detainees, particularly during arrests; guards mistreat prisoners; and prisons are dangerously overcrowded. Military personnel generally are not subject to civilian criminal law.
Discrimination against indigenous and tribal peoples is widespread. Tribal peoples, called Maroons, are the descendants of escaped African slaves who formed autonomous communities in the rain forest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their rights to their lands and resources, to cultural integrity, and to the autonomous administration of their affairs are not recognized in Surinamese law.
Constitutional guarantees of gender equality are not enforced. Several organizations specifically address violence against women and related issues. Despite their central role in agriculture and food production, 60 percent of rural women, particularly those in tribal communities, live below the poverty level. In the absence of a comprehensive law against trafficking in persons, the practice, including the sexual exploitation of women and children, remained a problem. In 2004, there were no convictions for such trafficking.