PARAMARIBO, Suriname—Former dictator Desi Bouterse was elected president by parliament Monday, following weeks of jostling by opponents who sought to stop a convicted drug trafficker and ex-strongman accused of killing political opponents from returning to power.
His eyes brimming with tears, Bouterse thanked supporters outside parliament after he secured 36 votes in support of his presidency, thanks to a small party's decision to back him in exchange for three Cabinet positions.
"I reach out my hand to everyone who feels that they are adversaries and ask them to leave the past behind so we can build this country together," Bouterse told the cheering, flag-waving crowd.
Suriname's president is not chosen directly by voters, but by legislators. A two-thirds majority in the 51-seat parliament is required to elect the president of Suriname, a South American country where the official language is Dutch but most people speak Sranan. Bouterse's Mega Combination faction won 23 seats in May elections.
Some Surinamese who did not support the former military dictator's return to power said Bouterse will at least have the benefit of experience.
"Bouterse destroyed much in the past, so maybe it is right that he gets the chance to redeem himself and help build this country," said Rachel Bruinhart, 24.
Others watched in dismay as Bouterse's supporters celebrated.
Michael Charles, a government employee, was baffled by the ex-dictator's election and expressed concern over the country's future.
"We have gone totally mad in this country. I don't know how we managed to get Bouterse as our president," Charles said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Bouterse has wooed people with energetic speeches peppered with street slang that resonates with poor Surinamese, many of whom complain that economic reforms have not made a difference in their lives.
Bouterse is facing a long-delayed trial in Suriname for his role in the slaying of 15 political opponents during his regime in 1982, and some see his candidacy for president as an effort to halt the trial and push for immunity from prosecution.
In 2007, the former military dictator offered his first public apology for the 1982 killings, saying he accepted political responsibility for the deaths but denied involvement.
Bouterse first seized control of Suriname in a coup in 1980, five years after it gained independence from the Netherlands. He stepped down under international pressure in 1987, then briefly seized power again in 1990.
In 1999 a Dutch court convicted him in absentia of trafficking cocaine to the Netherlands, but he has avoided an 11-year prison term because the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.
Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said the Netherlands would restrict contacts with Bouterse to "functional necessities."
"We cannot sweep under the mat the fact that Bouterse has been sentenced to 11 years in the Netherlands for drug trafficking," Verhagen said. "He is not welcome in the Netherlands unless it is to serve his prison sentence."
The Dutch Foreign Ministry said Bouterse enjoys immunity as a head of state for the duration of his presidency. "As a result, the sentence can only be served once he has left office and it is possible to arrest him," the ministry said in a statement.
"The links between our countries are special," Verhagen said, "because of our shared history and the countless personal relationships between Dutch and Surinamese citizens."
Outgoing President Ronald Venetiaan, who recently said his party would not work with Bouterse's faction as long as the former dictator was in control, congratulated the new president's coalition on the win.
Associated Press Writer Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that Sranan is the most common language in Suriname.) )