May 25, 2015 / 8:05 PM / 2 years ago

Suriname's Bouterse vies for second term in close election

Suriname's President Desi Bouterse (R) smiles at supporters next to his wife Ingrid outside the Central Main Polling Station as he arrives to register for the May 25 general elections, in Paramaribo, March 21, 2015. REUTERS/Ranu Abhelakh

PARAMARIBO (Reuters) - Suriname President Desi Bouterse, a former military ruler and convicted cocaine smuggler, is seeking a second term in the small South American country’s national elections on Monday.

Pre-election polls had initially shown Bouterse’s National Democratic Party well ahead, but the gap seems to have closed in recent weeks and the race now appears neck and neck.

His main rival is Chandrikapersad Santokhi, a former justice minister and police commissioner, of the six-party V7 opposition coalition, which accuses Bouterse of cronyism and corruption, and promises transparency and accountability.

Bouterse was convicted in absentia of drug trafficking by a court in the Netherlands in 1999. He has denied any wrongdoing.

He was also facing prosecution, stemming from a probe by Santokhi, then police commissioner, for the execution of 15 opponents in 1982 during his military rule, but the National Assembly passed an amnesty law in 2012 that grants him immunity.

His son Dino was sentenced in March to 16-1/4 years in prison, after pleading guilty last August to U.S. charges that he tried to offer a home base to the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah.

‘NOT LOOKING BACK’

Bouterse, a former sergeant who took part in two coups in 1980 and 1990, points to economic gains under his watch in the country of 550,000 people.

“We have achieved growth. Despite some claims, business is going well in Suriname,” Bouterse, 69, said in a speech over the weekend.

“The situations of stagnation ... are over. We are not looking back,” added Bouterse, who calls Santokhi “Sheriff” because of his police background.

Neither Bouterse’s party nor the rival coalition is expected to clinch a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, the minimum required to elect a president.

That means an assembly made up of 933 representatives, including National Assembly members and district representatives, would likely be formed to elect a new leader, a process that could take months.

Suriname, perched on South America’s northeastern shoulder, won independence from the Netherlands in 1975 and is now a gold and bauxite miner with a nascent oil industry.

Preliminary results are expected late on Monday.

Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Peter Cooney

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