Suriname opposition asks Bouterse to concede amid slow count

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — Votes were still being counted Thursday three days after Suriname’s elections, with the opposition urging the government to concede defeat and President Desi Bouterse calling for a recount even though the final tally had not yet been released.

The counting from Monday’s National Assembly election has been extremely slow. Normally a preliminary result is released the next morning and the failure to do so has irritated the chairman of the Independent Electoral Bureau, Jennifer Van Dijk-Silos, who has called the elections “the worst organized” she has seen in her career.

Suriname’s opposition parties said the counting was being delayed to allow Bouterse’s National Democratic Party to carry out electoral fraud — a charge it denied. The 74-year-old Bouterse, a former coup leader who has been convicted of murder and drug smuggling, was hoping to ride the elections into another term despite Suriname’s economic problems. The new National Assembly will select the next president in August.

As of Thursday evening, with 90% of the votes counted, the opposition United Reform Party led by Chan Santokhi was winning 20 of the 51 seats in parliament. Bouterse’s party was winning 16 seats, with other parties grabbing the remaining seats.

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A two-thirds vote in parliament is required to elect the president, meaning if Bouterse’s party managed to get two more seats, raising its total to 18, it could block Santokhi, a former police officer and justice minister.

“President Bouterse must acknowledge his defeat and start talks on the transfer to a new government,” Santokhi said.

The opposition leader said if no action was taken soon, he could call on the people of Suriname to converge on the sports hall where ballots were being counted.

Bouterse questioned the reliability of the vote. “Maybe somebody accidentally mistook a six for a nine in all the fatigue. If everything is correct we will admit our loss, but we want to make sure the figures are correct,” he said on his spokesman’s daily show on national radio SRS.

The opposition charged vote fraud. In one incident, Bouterse’s grandson, Walter Bouterse, purportedly tried to change election documents at the Anthony Nesty Sports Hall, where ballot are stored, and was expelled, the opposition said. The younger Bouterse denied he was there, and the president said he had been with his grandson the past two days.

At a joint news conference Thursday, opposition parties cited further irregularities, including an allegation the chairman of the main polling station, Mike Nerkust, stored boxes of documents illicitly in a room near his office. Nerkust said he stored the documents to ensure their security and contended the opposition had fallen victim to fake news.

Bouterse’s National Democratic Party has built support among the country’s poor, many of them black or mixed race, who feel Bouterse is the first politician ever to pay attention to them. But pre-election polls in the former Dutch colony had shown a swing toward the opposition United Reform Party, which has worked for years to broaden its base beyond its original focus on the descendants of East Asian immigrants, who make up just over a quarter of the population.

Bouterse first came to power in a 1980 coup and ruled for seven years, marked by the December 1982 murders of 15 political opponents. Last November, a Suriname court convicted Bouterse of murder and sentenced him to 20 years in prison — though it made no move to arrest him and he is appealing. He also faces an 11-year sentence in the Netherlands for a drug smuggling conviction.

After leaving office, Bouterse built up his party and won democratic elections in 2010, as well as reelection five years later.

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