A wait-and-see mood has settled over this former Dutch colony, now struggling to join the rest of South America in shaking off military dictatorship. Faced with a guerrilla insurgency and a crumbling economy, Lt. Col. D'esi Bouterse has conceded to hold elections Nov. 25, but few people believe ``the Commander,'' as he is officially called, is ready to retire from power.
``Bouterse's shadow hangs over this country,'' said one European diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
Hanging over Colonel Bouterse, who lead a military coup in 1980, is the memory of 15 opposition leaders murdered by his regime in December 1982. The Netherlands immediately stopped its $100 million annual aid program, throwing the economy into a tailspin from which it hasn't recovered.
The Dutch have made the resumption of aid contingent upon a return to elected government. Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975.
In an effort to pressure the Dutch, the Suriname government invited the European Community to send a nine-member fact-finding mission here late last month to review the regime's progress toward democracy. The mission's agenda was packed with speeches by political party leaders, trade-union officers, businessmen, and government officials who were picked by the regime to draw up a draft constitution to be presented to a referendum vote on Sept. 30.
After the speeches were over, some mission members said the central question was left unanswered. ``The constitution may be the finest words on the finest paper, but will the political system allow it to operate?'' asked Andrew Pearce, a British representative to the European Parliament.
But others here say the 61-page document itself raises its own set of questions. It makes the Army ``the military vanguard of the Surinamese people'' and endows the office of the President with enormous power.
Voters will not be able to pick the President, however. Nor will presidential candidates be required to declare their intention to run. Instead, Suriname's chief of state will be chosen by the 51 delegates elected to the National Assembly. The government has said it will invite international observers.
Although Bouterse has not said what his intentions will be, many people say he will continue to rule after the elections, either directly as President or indirectly through a surrogate.
``The constitution would legalize what goes on already,'' said the Rev. Rudy Polanen, superintendent of the 10 Moravian churches in Paramaribo, the capital city.
Bouterse is now transforming the political movement that he founded into what he says will be a multiracial party that will run National Assembly candidates in the Nov. 25 elections. In this racially diverse nation, Suriname's politics have traditionally taken on an ethnic hue, with the country's East Indians, Afro-European ``Creoles,'' and Javanese each having their own parties.
The small turnout at the April 26 rallies held by the traditional Creole and East Indian parties, the two largest, suggests that voters are not excited about the prospect of participating in the first elections since 1977.
Some diplomats said there is widespread opposition to the decision by the party leaders to give the Army a formal political role under the proposed constitution. Outside of the traditional parties, an anti-Bouterse protest movement has been gaining ground in the churches and the high schools. Although Protestant and Roman Catholic churches here have sustained the resistance to the regime, the protests didn't become public until soldiers used force to break up anti-Bouterse demonstrations by secondary school students in February. Since then, church women have organized a series of meetings and marches that have drawn as many as 500 people. The protests have been spurred on by the growing economic hardship.
Before the Army took over, Dutch aid pushed Suriname's per capita gross national product to $3,700, the continent's highest. The end of Dutch aid and the drop in the world price for bauxite, Suriname's top export, have stripped away most of the affluence. Per capita gross national product is expected to fall to $1,500 this year.
Ten months of raids by anti-Bouterse guerrillas on lumber mills, palm-oil plantations, and the vital aluminum industry have decimated Suriname's exports and cut sharply into foreign currency earnings. The result is a growing black market and import shortages that are forcing factories to close and making shoppers wait for hours for everything from onions to cooking oil.
One of the longest lines is in front of the Dutch Consulate. Half of Suriname's 400,000 people have emigrated to the Netherlands since 1975, but now, says a woman waiting for a visa, ``everyone wants to go.''