How well is Surinamese democracy functioning?

Flag of Suriname flies.

How has Surinamese democracy developed and how democratic is the country in practice? That is what Bharti Girjasing (Erasmus School and Behavioral Sciences) investigated in her thesis. She describes several key moments since independence in 1975 and also comes up with concrete recommendations. For instance, an adjustment of the electoral system is needed. More attention should also be paid to politics in education, according to the PhD student.

You have researched from independence in 1975 to 2020. What are important key moments in that period?

"I divided that period into three phases. 'The birth' from 1975 to 1980, 'the revolution''1980 to 1987, so when the army was in power, and the 'resurrection'. That is the period from the 1987 elections to the last elections in 2020. From 1975 to 1980, former president Henk Arron's party was in power. Notable events were the failure to hold the promised elections within months of independence and election fraud in 1977. This eroded confidence in democracy. In addition, the Surinamese constitution was drafted under high time pressure, which meant that too little account was taken of the local context of a young republic."

Portret van Bharti Girjasing.

You are conducting this research alongside a full-time job. What made you want to do this PhD research?

"I lived in Suriname for 10 years. The country brought me a lot and I was partly shaped there. One of the reasons for doing this research was a conversation with Jules Sedney, a former prime minister who has since passed away. He argued that democracy was fine. That got me thinking, because that was regularly at odds with the things I saw happening. Think of cases of corruption, or how little parliament was really critical. I have a public administration background, so I wanted to look deeper into this and contribute within my capacity to the further development of Suriname."

When you think of Surinamese politics, you think of Bouterse. How big is his role in your research?

"I haven't counted it yet, but his name comes up often. He was the foreman of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, but after 1987 he was eventually democratically elected president twice more. Then, during his presidency, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for the December 8 killings. So his role is huge."

"During the period of military rule, there was a lot of fear and little room for dissent"

Bharti Girjasing

Promovenda Erasmus School and Behavioural Sciences

Suriname had been independent for five years and then the army took over. How did that coup go?

"Things were going badly in Suriname economically and the population was in need of change. Things were bad in many sectors, including in the military, conditions were dire. They addressed this without success. Finally, on 25 February 1980, they occupied the barracks and took power by force. They demanded that the president and the old politicians should resign. This was also the moment Bouterse made his appearance, as before that he was not really known to the general public. During the period of military rule, there were no elections, the constitution and parliament were put out of order. The media also faced censorship. There was a lot of fear and little room for dissent."

Still, elections came again in 1987. How did that go?

"In the beginning, there was a lot of hope that things would improve economically, but instead things went further and further downhill. The country became highly isolated. As a result, the military rulers did have to work with politicians again. The business community also played a big role and strongly pushed for elections and the return of the constitution. Bouterse then formed the National Democratic Party (NDP), but the old political parties gained 90 per cent of the votes."

How could Bouterse still become the biggest again in 2010?

"Many people who voted there in 2010 and 2015 did not consciously experience the 1980s. Suriname never did well economically. There were a lot of austerity measures at that time, but that also hurt a lot. The economy started growing, but people did not notice much of this in their pockets. Corruption and nepotism also contributed to the desire for change. The young generation wanted change and Bouterse mirrored that to them. They were a contemporary party and you can say of Bouterse what you want, but he really is a charismatic man."

"Now it is the case that a vote is not worth the same amount in every district and that is not democratic"

Bharti Girjasing

Promovenda Erasmus School and Behavioural Sciences

How did you research this?

"I read a lot, from newspaper articles to scientific texts. And I interviewed an awful lot of people. Think politicians, like Jules Sedney, for instance, but also academics and people from the business world. I also spoke to many Surinamese people on the street."

You make very concrete recommendations in your thesis. What is needed for change?

"Social awareness of Surinamese is the first thing that comes to my mind. People are busy surviving and feel that voting once every five years gives them enough influence. Through civics, you can make them more aware of their responsibility so they can hold those in power more accountable. In addition, changing the electoral system. Currently, a vote is not worth the same in every district and that is not democratic. Fortunately, that discussion is very much alive and is being worked on."

The last elections in 2020 saw a new wind blowing. How optimistic are you about the future of democracy?

"We are far from there yet, but fortunately I see bright spots. The young generation has really become a lot more empowered, partly due to the advent of social media. As a result, they see that things are different in other countries. To ensure transparency in vote counting, young people chose to spend the night at the main polling station when counting votes in 2020 and record everything on social media. Another example is Bouterse's conviction on the December killings. He was convicted during his presidency.  That shows that at least the judiciary has not been influenced by the executive. We are making strides, but we still have a long way to go. We have to start doing that now."

More information

Bharti Girjasing defends her PhD thesis on Thursday 16 November 2023 'The democratic rule of law Suriname: Development in the period 1975-2020'.

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