Populism, Social Media and the Electoral Victory of Desi Bouterse in 2010

Posted on | mei 4, 2011 | No Comments

Desi Bouterse (UN Photo/Aliza Eliazarov)

In May 2010, the incumbent Surinamese government handed victory to the Nationale Democratische Partij (NDP) of Desi Bouterse, simply because of their inability to convey that economic progress was well under way, that  sound macro-economic policy making, for the first time since 2000 had stabilized the national currency, that all dept from previous governments had been paid off. Suriname was at that point in history, a relatively stable transitional society. The absence of the incumbent government from political life, however opened up the political arena for perverse political organizations that used democratic channels to seek support from the disenfranchised, based on message of promise and liberation.

The argument of this essay is that Desi Bouterse did not win the elections because his message indeed harbored a promise for a better future, a sound economic program,  but because the incumbents failed to woe the electorate, failed to in turn formulate a message that attract the disgruntled citizens, namely youth and the lower classes. The elections of 2010 can be considered a watershed, because for the first time in history, ethnicity did not determine the outcome of an election, the outcome was determined by class and the urban-rural divide. Who would have imagined that Suriname was divided along the lines of class and geography? That poverty and employment are universal principles, that require an equally universal approach? Not the traditional parties, whose leaders still harbored the notion of an ethnically loyal support base, and certainly not the people, whose idea of class is connected to ethnic stereotypes (Hindustani and Chinese are the possessive classes). The traditional parties notwithstanding, made cardinal errors, lacking the  political antenna to fight effectively. The electoral campaign can be qualified a  ‘losing game’, because Desi Boutere managed to separate ethnicity from class, using the old anti-colonial sentiments instead, leaving the traditional parties empty handed.

The NDP moreover formulated a campaign strategy, geared to in the first place, present a squeaky clean image, an image developed to wipe away their old reputation of roguish, ruthless and thieving politicians. They wanted the atrocities, human rights violations and allegations of murder that had occurred between 1980-1990 to be expunged. People they argued should focus on the present and the future, instead of constantly ‘glancing in their rear-view mirrors’.People argued that the leader should be forgiven for past mistakes made! And the traditional political parties failed to counter said argumentation, to communicate that Suriname should never again be confronted with 1980s-type of human rights violations and corruption!

Pivotal for the electoral success of the NDP was the pronounciation of a  ‘the message of forgiveness‘ a message supported by the Evangelical movement, that the leader had repented in church, that his sins had been forgiven.  On FACEBOOK, supporters of the church and the NDP conveyed the stunning message that ‘Yes Jesus, the Lord Our Savior will set us free here on Earth if we put our Fate in Gods chosen leader, Desi Bouterse, chosen by the Lord to lead us and this beautiful nation (Suriname).The followers consistently stressed that the leader would publicly ask for forgiveness for the 1982 killings, once elected.

The campaign strategy was indeed a revelation of some sort, but not in the biblical sense. The campaign was profane to the core, its aim to surprise the supporters, to charm in order to hide an undercurrent of manipulation and coercion. It also hid the unbridled ambition and tenacity of the leader Desi Bouterse and his entourage to win the election at whatever cost. The incumbents lacked drive and inspiration to match such unbridled ambition. The public was tired of the old, silent faces, of the fact that the president had no plans to step down, of the fact that government was held for ransom by two small ethnic and highly corrupt parties.

The incumbents failed to recognize and address the popular repulsion, their complaint that political leaders were absent from public life. They also failed to deal with the fact that policy-making and governing are in fact cold and distant. They could not communicate why policy-making occurs outside the realm of the public eye. The consistent silence of the incumbents confused and angered the public. It is difficult for any given government to make the voters see the difference between the political – the image on screen, the message, the leaders who promises to make life better- and the bureaucratic institutions- were policy is developed oftentimes the summation of interests and compromise. The fact that people cannot negotiate both entities, should worry and concern politicians, compelling them instead to become more introspective, to diligently work on the development of new formulas to make government more transparent, more tangible, to improve democracy.

Their inability of governments to do so, fosters populism, a phenomenon that in fact undermines democracy, because of its divisive and disintegrative quality, its proclivity to work around existing institutions, and the fact that it is centered on the principle of a strong, charismatic leader.

Let me explain why I think populism is bad for democracy. One of the qualifying criteria of political parties is their proclivity to function as some sort of gate keeper, to keep disloyal forces out of the political arena, but also to stimulate political plurality.. The second function of  political parties is to recruit and train new cadre, new leaders, that can take over, introduce novel ideas for economic development and conceptions for government. The public is not aware of this rather benign role of political parties, their confrontation with politics is at the ballots or when ‘things go wrong’, when issues of cronyism, nepotism, affairs and infighting make headlines. But it does not matter that the image of the public does not match reality, the public, the voter is always right. What matters is that their dissatisfaction and worry need to be addressed, and aggregated by political parties to create a platform. The people’s interest is economic progress, improvement of living standard. If leaders cannot express popular discontent, than they open up the arena for a Messianic type of politician, one that offers a solution based on liberation, a solution that falls outside political mainstream. Said messianic politician  positions him/herself as an outsider, as an anti-establishment hero, ‘one of the people’  a person adverse of compromise. Examples are Wilders in the Netherlands, Haider of Austria, Marine Le Pen of France, Chaves in Venezuela, Good Luck Jonathan of Nigeria, Morales of Bolivia, Fujimori of Peru and Bouterse of Suriname.

The difference between Bouterse, Goodluck Jonathan and Wilders, and the rest of the examples mentioned is their effective implementation of social media to tap into a new a demographic, instilling an impression of closeness and personal proximity, without physically approaching the supporters. NDP candidates were actively seeking support through FACEBOOK and other social networks (as did Gooduck Jonathan and Wilders during the last elections). Bouterse’s personal FB page was removed after elections, because they alleged that the page was a decoy, created by opponents. It is however highly unlikely that his image was abused by opponents. Social Media played an important role in the influencing of the youth, in the conveying the message of liberation.

The incumbents were on average, poorly represented in the social media and on the internet fora, only a few politicians used social media to keep in touch with their supporters. I fond their rusty communication skills on the internet telling of their inability to successfully tap into a new demographic in real life.

The question is if communication gap could be bridged, without sacrificing the old nomenclature, to bring in a new type of politician, apt to deal with the new tools of communication.

I don’t think that the traditional political order of Suriname is aware of the ramifications of their inaction. None of the political leaders has stepped down since the disastrous 2010 electoral results. In fact,the leader of the VHP was recently re-elected, based on the premise of preserving unity at all cost. Also, none of the political leaders of the Nieuw Front, addressed their failure to deal with the convicted politicians, to make laws to prevent convicted criminals from taking office. They also not addressed their failure to re-engineer the electoral system, making it more proportional instead, to stop the parliamentary over-representation of sparsely populated districts. Not accepting responsibility for the electoral debacle, for the return of dictatorship makes the traditional political parties controversial at best, simply because ‘things happened on their watch’.

The paradox that emerged because of government failure to deal with the past is that because government failed to deal with history the people refused to deal history. The problem is that history has the uncanny ability to catch up with the contemporary. The December killings of 1982; The dirty war in the interior that raged between 1985-1989, the economic crisis and the drug convictions in Miami that determined the 1980s; the culture of terror and fear that held society captive between 1989-1995, were left untouched by the previous government. The responsibility for the public ignorance of national history cannot be put on the shoulders of the youth, they don’t know because nobody bothered to tell them, to inform them about the past. Government opted to ignored such ‘teeny-tiny details of contemporary history, but so did the media….so did society.  Did people think that by not addressing this horrendous period, by not dealing with the sense of impunity that languished in broader society, things would simply go away? That the controversies would disappear from the face of the earth?

Harking back to my earlier argument, that the traditional parties counted on what they perceived to be a  ‘loyal ethnic base’ to argue that the traditional political organizations overlooked social dynamic brought on by urbanization and education. Does it mean that they were totally oblivious of the effects of  increased economic productivity and ensuing economic growth? Such is plausible, because how else can one explain that they could not ride on the waves of achieved economic success, by building a campaign around said economic success?

It will perhaps never become clear the determining factors behind the electoral loss of Nieuw Front. Relevant for analysis is the performance of the current government. Within the first 100 days in office, the new government managed to drive up inflation to an estimated  45% (conservative guess). Government also increased their take on gasoline, forcing many businesses to raise their prices, making living almost unaffordable for the poor, the natural support base of the ruling NDP.  who supported and voted for them in the hopes of a better future. Of equal concern is the consistent reporting of corruption, nepotism and fleecing: The first Lady who receives a salary (a regulation introduced by the president, her husband), the minister who redecorates his office for 100,000 USD, hiring immediate family to do the job, the import of new government cars by an immediate acquaintance. The list of corruption is endless and impressive and forebodes a difficult time  ahead for the country.

This government like many populist regimes is aware of the eroded lever of the opposition, rather its difficulty to recalibrate and recuperate after the last electoral blow. Also of concern is the return of a culture of fear and intimidation, one of the determining elements of the military dictatorship in the 1980s. The old Intelligence Service of the military regime is revamped, now headed by the Dino Bouterse, son of the president, with a criminal rap sheet and strong alleging of current involvement in the underworld. The media are currently being curtailed by the new government, there is hardly any opportunity for the media to ask questions, to inquire or to investigate, as contact between government officials and the press are kept at minimal level.

The only space where debate and critique continues is online, per social media. But that space is also jeopardized by an ever-increasing fear,  people are becoming more careful to post comments, more wary of the  innate obscure character of social media, where spying and monitoring by elements in  government can occur virtually undetected. Fear has not only engulfed those living in the country, but also those living abroad, with families in Suriname. There is a notable difference between last year and this year, when under the old regime  people posted more freely and more frequently.  Also noteworthy is the dwindling of the number of supporters of the NDP active on social media platforms. One explanation is that this specific social category, young and less affluent, can no longer afford to pay for high speed internet. Another explanation is that this specific category was  used by the party to post comments, in an attempt to influence the course of online debates. Both suggestions are plausible given the fact that living expenses have gone up and given the fact that the new president no longer needs these categories to influence the debate.

AUTHOR: Natascha Adama
URL: http://natascha23.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: nataliapestova23 [@] yahoo.com


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