The election of President Chandrika Parasad Santokhi in Suriname has been hailed as an example of a democratic transition of power in a nation suddenly presented with an opportunity to become a major oil producer.

The South American country is swiftly attracting the attention of international players following a string of high-profile offshore discoveries, with US independent Apache and French supermajor Total so far unearthing three on Block 58, including at the Kwaskwasi-1 wildcat late last month.

Santokhi took over the presidency from Desi Bouterse, a strong-man ruler who many doubted would step aside against the very opponent who has pursued mass murder charges against him.

Bouterse first came to power in a 1980 military coup and ruled as military dictator before settling for a behind-the-scenes role in the 1990s.

He was elected president again in 2010, using his affable tough-guy image to appeal to working class voters, and won a second term in 2015.

Bouterse used procedural loopholes to frustrate a 2007 lawsuit over his role in the 1982 torture and murder of 15 prominent opposition politicians in Paramaribo, the capital.

A judicial review of an amnesty law eventually led to a conviction in a military court in November 2019, but Bouterse was allowed to remain free pending appeals.

With Bouterse approaching his 75th birthday, observers are watching Santokhi’s handling of his case for signs of a deal that may have provided the former dictator with an opportunity to go quietly.

Santokhi’s Progressive Reform Party (VHP) emerged from the May election with 20 seats in the country’s 51-member national assembly.

Bouterse’s National Democratic Party, or NDP, saw its share of the seats fall from 26 to 16.

Suriname’s constitution gives the directly elected lawmakers the right to choose the president and, with no outright majority, Santokhi was forced to turn to the General Liberation & Development Party (ABOP), holding eight seats.

The price for that support was the selection of ABOP leader Ronnie Brunswijk for the vice president position and the granting of four cabinet positions to the party. The key national resources portfolio went to ABOP politician David Amiafo.

Brunswijk began his career as Bouterse’s personal bodyguard but became a guerrilla leader, staging a jungle war against the Bouterse regime between 1986 until 1992.

In the aftermath of that conflict, Brunswijk built up gold and timber businesses in the remote eastern territories, drawing his support from Maroon communities.

In 2010, Brunswick formed a ruling coalition with NDP, but declined the vice-presidency and later fell out with Bouterse again. Both men have faced Dutch charges and were convicted, in absentia, for drug smuggling.

Opaque business dealings and political rivalries aside, a spirit of pragmatism may prevail when it comes to oil sector policies for the new administration.

International oil companies in Suriname express satisfaction with the way state-run Staatsolie has carried out regulatory and contracting duties, but Santokhi is expected to create a new petroleum institute to take over this role, leaving the oil company to concentrate on its core business.

“This is one area where there may be some resistance to change, and some lobbying from those who don’t want Staatsolie to lose influence, but the new government will want to offer a more consistent and independent regulatory environment" said Christian Wagner, a risk analyst covering the Americas for consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft.

The new administration will also have to tackle the overspending and debt built up by Bouterse, with the risk that austerity could stir up protests.

However, Santokhi can approach the markets from the perspective of a company tipped to become a significant oil producer before the end of the decade, following discoveries by Apache.

Suriname retains its frontier status, and is likely to repackage and promote new acreage in 2021 or 2022, offering more attractive terms than neighbouring Guyana, Wagner predicted.