Syrian election charade must be called out by international community
So Bashar Assad has decided to run again for Syrian president on May 26. It will not be the most arduous run, but the regime treats this farce as a matter of great national importance.
The last presidential poll was back in 2014, when Assad received 88.7 percent of the vote, by far and away the lowest figure in the eight Assad “elections” held since 1970. The regime must have realized that the farce was a little too much when he got 99.8 percent in 2007. However, the only vote that truly matters was cast many years ago from deep within the Kremlin, and President Vladimir Putin has kept Assad in power ever since.
Will the useful idiots and Russian social media bots be back on show again? Almost certainly. They never give up, largely inhabiting their own little world where every ill and mishap is a fault of the US. They are welcome fodder for the Syrian regime’s propaganda machine.
On face value, the 2021 election will be little different to 2014. Other candidates are coming forward, including a woman and a Kurd. However, not for the first time, this process sees candidates running while saying they will not vote for themselves but Assad instead. A token, if weak, loyalist opposition candidate will also stand.
It is always useful when rigging elections to rule out problematic parts of the population. Some 6.6 million Syrian refugees — more than a quarter of the population — will not be able to vote, let alone stand as candidates, due to various legal obstacles; principally that only Syrians who have a valid exit visa can vote at Syrian embassies abroad. They also have to have a valid passport. In addition, those living in non-regime-held areas such as Idlib, the Turkish-occupied areas in the north and the Kurdish-dominated areas in the northeast will also be excluded. Frankly, given the stitch up, why would refugees or displaced communities bother to vote anyway?
The 2012 constitution imposed new restrictions on who could run. The first condition is that any candidate must have 10 years’ permanent residency prior to running; a clause designed to rule out any refugees and opposition figures. The second is that every candidate has to have the endorsement of 35 members of the 250-seat parliament, ruling out all but the very elite of Syrian society.
The amazing thing is that the regime appears so nervous that it has to make such seemingly pointless changes. It is a curious feature of the Syrian regime that, on certain issues, it likes to cloak its malign efforts in some veneer of legitimacy. After all, it could save valuable and scarce resources by not bothering with the election process at all.
The 2014 vote took place at the height of the conflict. The regime wanted to demonstrate that it was in control and could operate as normal. It was a sort of “carry on everyone, nothing to see here” approach, as missiles, bombs and artillery provided the acoustic backdrop.
But the 2021 version has far more international import for Damascus. It has been the regime’s position and that of Russia that, if there are going to be any reforms, piecemeal as they may be, they will not occur until after next month. In other words, reforms may be agreed to as part of some wider deal, perhaps in exchange for reconstruction funds, but only if the position of the presidency is completely secured.
This is why the UN has made it clear that these elections do not in any way fulfill the terms of Security Council Resolution 2254. This was passed in December 2015, encapsulating the Geneva Communique of 2012. Crucially, Russia and China agreed. What Resolution 2254 stipulated is that a new constitution should be agreed prior to any presidential election. The subsequent elections would be held under the auspices of the UN. The regime wants to invert that timeline and render the constitutional committee set up in 2019 irrelevant.
This is the Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated body that brought together a committee of Syrians — one third loyalist, one third opposition and another third from civil society. Its declared aim, which the Syrian regime signed up to, was to “prepare and draft for popular approval a constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement in Syria and the implementation of Resolution 2254.” It remains the only forum where the Syrian regime engages with its opponents, which is no small achievement. This is why Russia and the Syrian regime have brought the constitutional committee to a standstill.
An election that is not free, not fair and whose outcome is predetermined cannot be defined as an election.
The question is whether it is worthwhile keeping it going. Perhaps after the presidential coronation next month, Russia might be persuaded to cajole Assad to make some meaningful changes and free up the constitutional committee to carry out its mandate. The omens are hardly positive. On balance, it might just be enough for UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen to keep it going for one more round of talks to see if there is any life left in the initiative.
But the international community needs to be clear as it was in 2014 that this is not an election in any meaningful sense of the word. It is a sham. An election that is not free, not fair and whose outcome is predetermined cannot be defined as an election.
This charade must be called out strongly, clearly and unanimously. The only way to honor the incredible suffering of the Syrian people, not least over the last 10 years, is to reject this in favor of serious and credible political change.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech