Suriname’s 74-year-old president looked straight at a judge as she read his sentence for crimes committed during a 1982 political purge that cemented his grip on the small South American nation.
“You have been sentenced to 20 years in prison for committing murder,” she said that day this past January, according to witnesses.
The spectacle, virtually unheard-of for a sitting president, stunned the audience.
For the president, Desi Bouterse, his conviction before a military court in Suriname was just the latest chapter in a four-decade battle to maintain power. Appealing the ruling and avoiding prison through presidential immunity, he is instead running for re-election.
Monday’s vote will be one of the biggest tests of his career. Amid an economic crisis and a pandemic, Surinamese will decide whether Mr. Bouterse will spend his twilight years ruling the country or serving time.
“He’s a survivor, above all else,” said Hans Ramsoedh, a Netherlands-based Surinamese historian. “He has no beliefs, no ideological vision, apart from desire to remain in power.”
During his career, Mr. Bouterse has been a colonial careerist, a feared military dictator, a magnate and, recently, a populist.
He has staged two military coups, terrorized his opponents and forged the country’s first multiethnic political coalition. He has deceived the middle class but empowered Suriname’s poor.
Mr. Bouterse did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. With his support sliding, his party has skipped all public debates and has instructed supporters to avoid the news media before the vote.
The 14 opposition parties contesting the general elections hope that crumbling living standards and corruption scandals will prevent Mr. Bouterse from retaining a majority in Parliament and force him to resign. But even they acknowledge that support for the charismatic president remains high among the poor and that his criminal convictions give him ample reason to hold power at all cost.
“My hope is that people will vote for change, because we deserve much better than this,” said Maisha Neus, 33, a businesswoman and opposition candidate for Parliament. “My outlook is more gloomy.”
Mr. Bouterse has built his recent popularity by adapting the populist and nationalist stances of allies in nearby Venezuela to Suriname’s diverse society, made up of descendants of enslaved Africans, Indian and Indonesian indentured laborers, Chinese merchants and Indigenous people.
He has promoted his humble origins and mixed race to set himself apart from Suriname’s traditional politicians, who tend to represent single ethnic groups. Over the years, his National Democratic Party has grown from a military clique into the country’s first major multiethnic political movement, breaking down the voting patterns that have divided Suriname since independence from the Netherlands.
“He knows the Surinamese society very well, and that’s the key to understanding his success,” said Peter Meel, an expert on Suriname’s history at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “He relates very easily to people from many different backgrounds. You can have a drink with him, get close to him.”
Similar to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s late strongman and Mr. Bouterse’s personal friend, Mr. Bouterse has showered supporters with cheap houses and food with little regard for the state’s coffers and captivated them with folksy speeches, singing and dancing. His spending has left the country practically bankrupt, forcing the government to raid banking reserves to import food ahead of the elections.
Mr. Bouterse often attributes the country’s struggles to “white men in shorts,” his moniker for foreign powers like the Netherlands, which governed Suriname for 300 years.
Mr. Bouterse was born into a poor family in Suriname’s sugar belt. A restless, ambitious youth, he dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Dutch Army, serving, among other places, at a NATO base in Germany during the Cold War, according to Nina Jurna, a Brazil-based Dutch author who wrote a book about Mr. Bouterse.
As Suriname was nearing independence in 1975, the Dutch invited Mr. Bouterse and a few dozen other Surinamese officers to return home and build the new national army.
Dissatisfied with the new country’s economic stagnation, Mr. Bouterse took power in a military coup in 1980 with the tacit support of Dutch officers stationed locally, according to Dirk Kruijt, a Suriname expert at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
The exact role played by the Netherlands in Mr. Bouterse’s rise to power remains unclear. Despite calls for disclosure, the Dutch government has kept the official files related to the coup secret.
After taking power, Mr. Bouterse ruled Suriname through terror. Fearing a counter-coup, in 1982 Mr. Bouterse ordered his soldiers to round up, torture and execute 15 dissident officers, union leaders, journalists and businessmen.
The killings, known as the “December Murders,” crushed the core of Suriname’s nascent elite, traumatizing the small, peaceful country and altering its course.
“It was a war against Surinamese people,” said Amanda Sheombar, who was 12 when her cousin, an army sergeant, was killed in the massacre. “We lived in fear, everyone assumed they could be next targets.”
Mr. Bouterse would later accept “political responsibility” for the killings, but never personal responsibility. He has said, without offering evidence, that the executions prevented larger bloodshed by decapitating a coup plot.
The Dutch reacted to the killings by suspending a generous aid package. It was the beginning of Suriname’s economic decline, punctuated by regular currency crises, defaults, strikes and devaluations.
To compensate for the loss, Mr. Bouterse played the Americans and Soviets for financial support and even hosted a Libyan Embassy, a rarity under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator. Dutch prosecutors claim he also turned for revenue to Colombian cartels, earning him a drug-trafficking conviction in absentia in the Netherlands.
When asked once during the Cold War if he was left wing or right wing, Mr. Bouterse replied he was merely a military man, taught to march with “left foot, right foot.”
When Suriname transitioned to democracy in 1987, Mr. Bouterse ditched his military uniform for three-piece pinstriped suits and pocket kerchiefs — but he kept control of the army.
As he accumulated wealth, entering lucrative ventures in mining and real estate, he remained the real power behind the scenes, once even forcing Suriname’s entire government to resign with a telephone call.
He also began reinventing himself as a democrat and an alternative to Suriname’s colonial-era governing parties. Feared at first, his party steadily built support over the 1990s.
By the time he won an electoral victory in 2000, Mr. Bouterse, a Scotch-sipping power broker, had transformed into a cheerful man of the people, donning polo shirts and sipping beer with supporters in the poor quarters of Paramaribo, the capital. He was re-elected in 2005.
Under Mr. Bouterse’s elected governments, his past excesses were gradually forgotten. The massacre was never taught in Suriname’s schools, and a new generation born after the dictatorship had no interest in hearing about long-ago crimes, said Henri Behr, a Surinamese business consultant whose brother was killed in the December Murders.
But now justice may finally catch up with Mr. Bouterse, Mr. Behr said.
Mr. Bouterse’s court appearance in January, the first since the case began in 2007, was a cathartic moment for victims’ families.
“I was expecting to see a strongman,” said Mr. Behr, who was in the courtroom. “What I saw was great fear.”
Harmen Boerboom contributed reporting from Paramaribo, Suriname.