In May, South America’s two smallest countries went to the polls with differing results. On May 11, Guyana’s People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) was ousted from government after 22 years. Two weeks later in neighboring Suriname, incumbent president and former military leader Dési Bouterse led his National Democratic Party (NDP) to a handy victory and looks set to extend his presidency by another five year term.
What links both elections is the increasing importance of young voters in deciding outcomes. Breaking with past generations, young voters in Guyana and Suriname today are mobilized by social media rather than rallies, care little for the partisan politics of the past and appear to be more likely to vote on issues rather than for the ethnic parties of their parents’ generation.
Guyana and Suriname have populations of roughly 800,000 and 540,000, respectively, and both countries possess remarkable ethnic diversity. In Guyana, citizens of South Asian descent are the largest group, accounting for 43 percent of the population, and the Indo-Guyanese PPP/C has used its demographic advantage to win five consecutive elections since 1992.
However, in recent years, economic mismanagement and corruption scandals have eroded support for the PPP/C and have galvanized the opposition. This time around, an alliance between the Afro-Guyanese A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (APC)—the latter a multiethnic party founded in 2005—won 33 seats in Parliament to the PPP/C’s 32.
Although Guyana doesn’t keep accurate records of voter preferences by age group, total voter numbers are instructive. There were 567,000 registered voters for May’s election, compared to 475,000 in 2011. The vast majority of these new voters are young, first-time voters, and nearly two-thirds of the electorate was under the age of 35. Of the total electorate, 437,000 cast votes, a participation rate of 77 percent. For the first time, social media was widely used to promote participation, with the #votelikeaboss and #movingitforward hashtags credited with mobilizing young voters.
During the campaign, the PPP/C resorted to its traditional tactic of criticizing the track record of the People’s National Congress (PNC)—the largest grouping in APNU—which ruled the country in the 1970s and 1980s. But with youth unemployment at around 40 percent, voters were most motivated by their own economic interests. “The PPP/C’s message did not sell to young voters,” said an analyst who monitored the elections but asked not to be named. “They failed to meet with student voters and had no real message for young people.”
Across the Courantyne River to the east, the Surinamese opposition faced a similar challenge to that of Guyana’s PPP/C— young voters apparently care little about events from 30 years ago. Sitting President Dési Bouterse first came to power in 1980 as the 34-year-old leader of a military coup. He is the prime suspect in an ongoing trial for the 1982 murder of 15 opposition figures and has been convicted for drug trafficking, in absentia, by the Dutch government. Just two months before the election, a New York court sentenced his son Dino to 16 years in prison for offering DEA agents, disguised as Hezbollah operatives, the opportunity to establish a base in Suriname from which to run drugs and organize attacks against the United States.
The electorate doesn’t appear to mind, however. Despite his past, Bouterse’s National Democratic Party (NDP) won 26 of the 51 available assembly seats in Suriname’s May 25 election—though the NDP did not reach the two-thirds majority required to guarantee Bouterse’s presidency. He now needs to strike a deal with one or more of the country’s ethnic parties to gain the additional votes needed to be reinstated as president.
The opposition, a loose coalition of seven parties representing Hindu, Creole and Javanese ethnic groups, failed in their two-prong strategy to attack Bouterse’s strongman past and to criticize his fiscal profligacy. Since winning the 2010 vote, Bouterse has used increased budgetary income from high gold prices to boost spending on child support, pensions and healthcare. He has also spent heavily on infrastructure and tackled unemployment by creating public sector jobs that now account for more than 40 percent of the total workforce.
“Bouterse has made visible changes to the lives of Suriname’s working class” said an international observer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “His party brands itself as non-racial, ran an organized campaign and his charisma and self-made man persona make him popular with young urban voters. These voters aren’t interested in his past.”
The 2015 elections may come to be seen as a watershed for the political systems of Suriname and Guyana. The old trends of ethnic voting are unlikely to disappear, but now, demonstrated economic success combined with a catchy social media campaign looks to be the best way to capture the first-time voters who decide elections.