Blog: Malta and Suriname: Ousting big leaders in small states?

By Wouter Veenendaal

Small states rarely make world headlines, but dramatic political developments in Malta and Suriname over the past few days promptly catapulted these countries into the international limelight. In Malta, the criminal investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist and anti-corruption activist Daphne Caruana Galizia has exposed ties between a key suspect and members of Malta’s political elite, leading to the resignation of two government ministers and the announced resignation of Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. In Suriname on Friday, the military court sentenced president and former dictator Desi Bouterse to 20 years in prison for his involvement in the 1982 December murders, during which 15 opponents of his military regime were assassinated.

In both countries, a key question at the moment is whether these striking developments will (ultimately) produce genuine political change. The prime minister of Malta has vowed to step down after January 12, but his ruling Labour Party will continue in office, apparently for now still enjoying more support than Malta’s internally divided opposition. In Suriname, President Bouterse has announced that he will appeal the military court’s ruling and has no intention of stepping down. National elections are scheduled for May 2020, and it remains to be seen if the court’s ruling will have any effect on the popularity of Bouterse’s National Democratic Party. Notwithstanding the spectacular turn of events, their effects on the broader political systems of both countries are therefore still largely unclear.

The current developments in Malta and Suriname can be related to a very persistent feature of politics in small states: the concentration of power in the hands of political leaders. While Malta and Suriname are in many respects very different, both countries have populations of approximately half a million. This smallness conditions their politics in a variety of ways, one of which is that it contributes to executive dominance and the accumulation of vast powers by the head of government. In Suriname, where the role of the president is not clearly defined in the constitution, Bouterse has greatly expanded the power of the presidency since his election to office. In Malta, the excessive power of the prime minister to appoint or control a range of public offices has increasingly come under severe criticism. In both countries, debates about executive dominance have centred around corruption scandals and alleged ties between the government and organized crime groups. But perhaps even more importantly, power concentration also produces grave concerns about the governments’ capacities to influence or obstruct the legal processes in which they are involved.

The link between population size and power concentration has been highlighted by recent academic studies, and is one of the key effects of scale that John Gerring and I examine in our forthcoming book Population and Politics. In small communities, it is much more likely that one person – or a small group of people – accumulates vast political powers, and is able to dominate the entire public sphere. Power concentration is likely to translate into longer periods in office, a weaker political opposition, and fewer checks on executive rule. Institutions that are supposed to function as a break on executive power – such as parliaments, judiciaries, or the media – tend to be weaker in small communities, either because they are politically controlled or because they lack the capacities and (human) resources to effectively perform their democratic role. Finally, as a result of weaker checks and decreased transparency, the concentration of power also enhances the scope for illicit or corrupt behaviour among politicians.

In light of the tendency towards power concentration in small states, the recent events in Malta and Suriname are perhaps even more remarkable. Despite their tight grip on power, the resignation of Muscat and the conviction of Bouterse demonstrate that small-state leaders are ultimately not unassailable. This can also be linked to the international vulnerability of small states, as the Maltese government faces formidable pressure from the European Union to reform its political system. On the other hand, Suriname’s government is establishing closer ties with China in order to decrease its dependence on Western powers, and on the Netherlands in particular. Showcasing his dominance in Surinamese politics, Bouterse can employ Suriname’s foreign policy to continue escaping his own conviction.

Photo: AFP -NOS

(Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at KITLV and an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science of Leiden University. His research addresses the question why small states have more stable political systems than large ones, despite the weakness of political structures and strongly personalized politics).

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