Surinamese protest against president, 1999

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Time Period:  
May 19,
Location and Goals
To force the resignation of President Jules Wijdenbosch

After only three years in office, the president of Suriname Jules Wijdenbosch became the target of harsh criticism and dissatisfaction because of his government’s management of the economy and domestic affairs. In 1998, the Dutch government had decided to stop aid to Suriname amid drug and financial mismanagement scandals, which increased the economic crisis. In May 1999, the struggling national economy reached a new low when its currency plummeted in value, from 800 guilders to the dollar to 2,000, and inflation was at 70%, inciting civil unrest and nationwide protests.

On May 19, hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the capital building in Paramaribo and forced their way into the legislative chamber. They pushed past guards at the entrance and crossed the threshold into the room. Once inside, the protesters delivered a petition to lawmakers calling for the president’s resignation. The protesters left about an hour later after voicing their concerns, reportedly causing no damage or inciting any violence. They later demonstrated outside the Supreme Court to protest the inauguration of five Supreme Court justices over the objections of the sitting judges.

Surinamese unions and opposition parties also staged anti-government protests that May during which they continued to demand the resignation of Wijdenbosch. Banks, gas stations, and most businesses also closed to show their disapproval of the government’s policies. Even the president’s brother, the head of the manufactures’ association, believed that Wijdenbosch should step down. Commercial activity and public transportation were shut down for weeks as protesters paraded the president’s effigy through the streets, sang songs outside Wijdenbosch’s office, and held rallies outside the capital.

The growing protests combined with general civil unrest caused many of the president’s advisors to personally ask him to resign. Wijdenbosch responded by firing his entire 15-member cabinet (though some reports said they resigned) during the last week of May. This provoked the biggest protest so far, with over 20,000 demonstrators taking to the streets. Fred Derby, a powerful labor leader and head of an opposition political party, said that Parliament would convene the next week and opponents would present a motion to force Wijdenbosch to step down.

On June 13, the National Assembly held a no-confidence vote calling for the removal Wijdenbosch from office. They cited financial mismanagement and popular discontent as the main reasons behind their call for his resignation. The motion passed by a simple majority (27 to 24). The President insisted a two-thirds majority was needed and refused to resign. In a compromise, however, he called for elections to be held a year early, in May 2000.

Ten more months of Wijdenbosch’s presidency, however, was not what his opposition wanted. Surinam’s labor unions, which a week earlier had called off their planned two-week long national strike, planned a new wave of strikes to force the president from office. Protests resumed and again, day-to-day routines in Paramaribo were disrupted.

Meanwhile, a drug charge split the ruling coalition in Congress. Desi Bouterse, a former military dictator who led the coalition's largest party had been on trial - in absentia - in the Netherlands, the former colonial power, since March. Bouterse was charged with smuggling 1.5 tons of cocaine into the country. On April 2 the president had fired Bouterse as his senior adviser – despite the fact that for years the two had maintained a mentor-student relationship. Bouterse’s supporters voted against the opposition's no-confidence motion against Wijdenbosch, but put up one of their own, proposing Bouterse act as interim president until the next scheduled election.

In July, the opposition called off the protests, agreeing to compromise and allow Wijdenbosch to remain president until the early elections chose a replacement. Surinam’s long democratic tradition influenced the opposition’s decision to follow the country’s constitution and wait for national elections to establish a new ruling order. Both sides more or less avoided using violence and remained within the confines of the constitution throughout the conflict.

Before the election in May, in what some say was an attempt to distance himself from Bouterse, Wijdenbosch left the National Democratic Party (NDP) and formed a new electoral coalition, the Democratic National Platform 2000 (DNP 2000). The election was held, as planned, on May 25, 2000. The New Front (an electoral alliance comprising the National Party of Suriname, the Pertajah Luhur, the Suriname Labor Party, and the Progressive Reform Party) secured 33 of the 51 seats; the Millenium Combinatie (an alliance including the NDP) took 10, and DNP 2000 three. Having narrowly failed to secure the two-thirds’ majority to appoint a new president directly, the New Front entered into coalition negotiations with the smaller parties. On August 4, New Front candidate and former president of Suriname (from 1991 to1996), Ronald Venetiaan was elected to the presidency, winning 37 of the 51 votes cast in the National Assembly. Upon assuming office on August 12, the new President pledged to fight corruption, accelerate economic development and reduce debt. In October, the Dutch Government agreed to resume aid to Suriname, which had been suspended since 1998.

Research Notes

International examples of overthrowing dictators and mass protests throughout the history of Latin America (1).

“Recent History of Suriname.” Europa World Online. Routledge: London, 2004.

“Suriname’s Wondrous Botch: President Jules Wijdenbosch asked to step down.” The Economist. 5 June 1999.

Various Associated Press articles, 1999.

Additional Notes: 
Edited by Max Rennebohm (07/06/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Meghan Auker Becker, 18/04/2010