The president of a country on the northern coast of South America violated every rule of democracy. He shamelessly bought votes with public resources, intimidated opposition leaders and restricted opposition political parties. He handpicked electoral authorities and stacked electoral institutions with loyalists, dashing hopes for an impartial electoral process. He showed no intention of leaving power peacefully in part because he had been brought to trial for drug trafficking in a foreign jurisdiction.
One might think that the only way to drive him from power would be through economic sanctions, external pressure and maybe even a military intervention. Certainly, participating in his sham elections would only serve to legitimize his rule. Right?
Think again. The country is Suriname, and its opposition got right everything that Venezuela’s opposition is getting wrong.
On 16 July this year, the ten-year rule of authoritarian leader Desi Bouterse came to an end after the country’s parliament elected opposition leader Chandrikapersad ‘Chan’ Santokhi to the country’s presidency. This followed a stunning victory by Santokhi’s Progressive Reform Party (VHP) in the country’s May 2020 general elections and two months of careful coalition-building aimed at garnering the necessary support for Santokhi’s election by a parliamentary supermajority.
It would have been easy to boycott the May general elections, as Venezuela’s mainstream opposition did with the country’s presidential elections two years ago and has announced it will do again with this year’s legislative elections. Certainly, there were plenty of reasons to denounce Suriname’s electoral process as hopelessly biased. Electoral authorities were hand-picked by Bouterse, electoral party alliances were banned, and voter registration rolls included dead persons or people who did not live in the addresses they had listed. The incumbent’s campaign held meetings during the lockdown even when these gatherings had been legally banned. A video was even uploaded on Twitter showing a National Democratic Party (NDP) caravan throwing money at people.
Borrowing from the dictator’s playbook, the Bouterse government also pushed ahead with last-minute changes in electoral legislation that included the creation of mobile polling stations, a process that was marred by delays in the delivery of voting cards and electoral materials. All this on top of an already biased Surinamese electoral legislation – for example, district size is independent of population size, and rural regions, where Bouterse’s NDP is dominant, are over-represented relative to their population, making the government more likely to win even if the opposition receives more votes in the country as a whole.
In light of the discussion in neighboring Venezuela regarding similar acts by the Maduro government and its Supreme Court to game the upcoming National Assembly elections, it’s worth understanding the extent to which Surinamese electoral authorities had been under the thumb of the government. There are two electoral institutions in Suriname, the Independent Electoral Council (OKB) and the Central Electoral Committee (CHS), both of which have heads appointed by the president and both of whom are members of the NDP. Not only that, but the organization of the electoral event is directly in charge of the Minister of Home Affairs. Bouterse’s control ran so deep that toward the end of election day, he, along with several ministers, even met with the Chair of the OKB to decide how long to keep polling stations open. The Maduro regime, at least, has had the minimal decency to keep any such meetings out of the public eye.
The VHP could have certainly decided to boycott the vote and claim that there were no conditions for free and fair elections. Instead, the opposition movement took on the challenge, betting that Bouterse’s growing unpopularity, the country’s deep economic crisis, and voters’ frustration over international isolation would help it overcome the corrupted, politicized electoral system. Sure, incumbents can always try to rig elections, but doing so is much harder when an avalanche of voters wants to drive you from power.
Their bet paid off big time. The VHP won 39.4 per cent of the national vote, against the NDP’s 24.0 per cent. While this guaranteed the VHP a plurality of National Assembly seats, they did not win the two-thirds supermajority needed to appoint a president without appealing to the broader United People’s Assembly – which includes sub-national representatives. What followed were two months of skillful negotiations, in which the VHP was able to gain the support of four smaller parties that ensured the required supermajority.
We will probably never get a complete picture of all of the behind-the-scenes gamesmanship that took place to make the transition possible, but we can garner some clues from outward signals.
First, the VHP needed to enter into deals with some unsavory characters. A prominent example is Ronnie Brunswijk, a former Bouterse bodyguard who now heads the minority General Liberation and Development Party (ABOP) who was elected by the legislature to serve as Vice-President alongside Santokhi in exchange for his party’s votes. Brunswijk, who was assiduously courted by Bouterse, has also been convicted in absentia for drug trafficking in the Netherlands and France. Then, a transfer of power agreement was hashed out in an hours-long one-on-one meeting between Bouterse and Santokhi. As Belgian journalist Walter Lotens wrote, ‘What was discussed during that conversation will not appear in the history records, but it undoubtedly had to do with giving guarantees to Bouterse in a diplomatically discreet way.” Bouterse, who had initially demanded a recount of the vote, announced after the meeting that he would accept the results. ‘When the people have spoken, we have to bow our heads,’ said the former dictator.
Authoritarian leaders often call semi-competitive elections in their bid to remain in power. The reasons are manifold, and range from constitutional mandates to the need to obtain some level of national and international legitimacy. The international evidence strongly suggests that boycotting these elections is not a good idea. There are numerous cases – Chile in 1988, Nicaragua in 1990, Serbia in 2000 – where an electoral victory against a rigged electoral process set in motion a transition that led to the ousting of authoritarian leaders.
Contesting elections does not necessarily imply legitimizing them. Opposition movements can consistently denounce electoral irregularities and still call on people to vote. The decision to participate in an election is not about assigning legitimacy, but about choosing a terrain in which to contest power from an authoritarian regime. Opposition movements that decide to eschew elections and attempt to use force to drive their governments from power are often simply taking the contest for power to an arena where they are sure to lose.
One reason why electoral transitions are often much more viable than revolutionary ones is because participating in elections entails some type of implicit negotiation over the space and pace of viable change. This is because the winners of an election can gain control of the branch of government to which they have been elected yet need to commit to respecting the remaining branches, which may have been appointed by the outgoing incumbent. In Nicaragua in 1990, the opposition’s decision to compete in elections carried an implicit quid-pro-quo to respect the judiciary and other state institutions, including the Sandinista-controlled army. By respecting some degree of separation of powers, the opposition accepts a bargain that precludes a winner-take-all approach.
Of course, no two cases are identical, and critics may point to the relative independence of Suriname’s judiciary as a reason for having greater trust in institutions. In fact, High Court President Cynthia Valstein-Montnor was the presiding judge officiating the Military Court in the murder-trial against Bouterse for the killing of 15 political opponents in 1982. Attorney General Roy Baidjnath Panday, who helped block Bouterse’s attempts to stop the trial, also enjoys a broad level of independence.
Yet it is also the case that it is easier to maintain independent institutions when opposition forces contest elections and defend political spaces rather than abandon them. Venezuela’s opposition has proved more able to thwart the advances of Chavismo when it has had parliamentary representation than when it boycotted parliamentary elections in the past. In fact, it is clear that the Venezuelan opposition’s strongest card today against the Maduro regime – the international recognition of Juan Guaidó as interim president by 58 nations – is a direct consequence of the opposition’s decision to contest parliamentary elections in 2015 rather than boycotting them, even while facing an uneven playing field.
Recent decisions by Venezuela’s Supreme Court have stripped key opposition leaders of their parties, handing them over to Maduro-backed dissidents. Because of this, some argue that Venezuela’s opposition doesn’t really have a choice of participating in coming parliamentary elections – the choice has already been made for them. This argument, however, is incorrect. There are still several nationally-established parties on whose tickets opposition leaders can register their candidacies—some of them registered by these leaders in anticipation that the regime would decide to take control of their parties.1
Venezuela’s opposition may do well in learning from the tenacity of some of its obstinate rivals in other countries. After electoral authorities appointed by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno stripped control of the governing Alianza País party from its founder, former President Rafael Correa, and refused requests by Correa’s followers to register their own party, the leftist leader forged ahead, refusing to abandon the electoral terrain. He entered into an alliance with a small third party, and his candidates managed to get the second highest total number of votes nationwide despite only being able to field candidates in 11 of the 23 state races. Polls indicate that Correa, or a candidate appointed by him, has a good chance of winning next year’s presidential election (Correa now faces a new attempt to ban his party, yet is giving no indication that he will willingly abandon the electoral terrain).
Achieving a successful transition is about much more than contesting and winning an election. Making a peaceful transition possible implies the need for significant concessions. VHP leader Santokhi has already stated that extradition of Bouterse to the Netherlands is out of the question as it is not permitted under current legislation. It may prove trickier to deal with the 20-year domestic sentence weighing on Bouterse’s head for the 1982 killings; some type of amnesty will likely be necessary to make a deal palatable for Bouterse. On 28 July Bouterse’s appeal was postponed until further notice, a decision that will help Bouterse avoid jail. It is hard to believe that some level of political negotiation was not behind this suspension.
Some will say that these types of agreements are unacceptable. They will say that Maduro, Bouterse, and their cronies must face prison and that any solution that entails power-sharing with their regimes implies a morally unacceptable compromise. One should never negotiate with criminals, they’ll say.
Yet what is the point of advocating for a morally ideal transition that never happens?
The views expressed in this article are personal and do not represent those of the authors’ employers or of Chatham House.