Economic reform has not led to political change. Sunday's election offers many candidates, but few real alternatives.
By Louise Roug, Times Staff Writer
April 23, 2007
DAMASCUS, SYRIA — On the streets outside Jadat al Hashimi School, candidates in Syria's parliamentary elections Sunday advertised their campaigns with pictures and banner slogans.
But the plethora of posters belied the lack of choice inside the voting booth.
Syrian voters who came to cast their ballots had no meaningful alternative to the ruling party, which largely dictates who has a chance to be in the next parliament.
"What's the point?" asked one young woman rhetorically as she sidestepped election workers near the school in central Damascus and moved on without voting.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad came to power in 2000, he promised political reform would follow a liberalization of the economy. In the seven years since, his government has opened the economic system, spurring significant foreign investment despite U.S. sanctions. But it has shunned serious political reform.
Though foreign fashion, flashy cars and boutique hotels have arrived in Syria, there is little sign that democracy is following any time soon.
Polling stations were all but deserted Sunday, although the usual trappings of authoritarianism were still in place: Schoolchildren toted pictures of Assad, and members of the regime were greeted with chants.
In recent months, the government has moved to silence dissent by jailing its critics, including human rights activists and academics.
"The regime from the beginning said they would make economic reform before political reform, but the [political] reform has not come," said a dissident who asked not to be named for fear of persecution. "I don't think that because you have Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent in Damascus that you have freedom."
Just over two-thirds of the seats in the 250-member parliament are reserved for members of the governing coalition, the National Progressive Front, led by Assad's Baath Party. The remaining seats are reserved for candidates who are independent in name only.
Staying away from the polls is one way to protest, observed the dissident.
At the Hashimi School, government officials and reporters outnumbered voters. By noon, only about 70 people had cast their votes there, as fashionable Syrians jostled for space at sun-drenched cafes nearby.
Though there have been no signals from Assad's government of changing political course, the growing economy is altering Syria in other ways.
On a recent afternoon outside the newly built Four Seasons hotel, a young couple hopped into their red Ferrari and sped toward the old part of the city. Nearby, shoppers in a mall browsed through items that included a $2,000 red Cavalli leather jacket, gold embroidered Galliano jeans and a rack of wispy Versace dresses.
One consequence of the foreign investment is that other countries are gaining leverage. Political observers believe that Saudi Arabia wants to break the political alliance between Syria and Iran and will be using cash as a crowbar.
The Four Seasons, for example, is owned in part by Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
The Iranians in turn have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, launching several high-profile projects, including the production of a Syrian-Iranian car, the Sham, which Assad recently test-drove alongside Iranian First Vice President Parviz Davoudi.
Syria also just signed a free-trade agreement with neighboring Turkey. Following privatization of the banking sector, the Lebanese are setting up shop all over Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Since a 2005 conference of the Baath Party, the government has privatized previously state-run sectors, abolished tariffs and dismantled other restrictions to stimulate trade.
The regime and its supporters say that they can't unleash political reform too quickly.
"I don't expect political reform in the near future," said Sameer Saifan, a businessman close to the government who has advised officials on economic reform.
Last year, the GDP grew 5%, Saifan said. The country's exports also have grown tremendously — to $10.8 billion last year from $2.5 billon in 2005, according to a statement by Prime Minister Naji Otari in the state-run paper Al Thawra. However, it is difficult to independently verify the government's statistics.
The average annual income in Syria is about $1,200, according to the most recent World Bank figures, although many analysts believe it is somewhat higher.
Observers point out that an unequal distribution of the new wealth could spell political trouble in the future, highlighting other obstacles on the road to unregulated markets.
A key challenge to the Syrian economy is the country's reliance on oil. According to the World Bank, half the government's revenue comes from oil, but analysts predict that Syria will run out of the resource by the late 2020s.
Observers also point out continued instability among Syria's neighbors, notably Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Washington's continued policy of trying to isolate Damascus.
Observers note that investors outside the region still look askance at the Syrian market.
"For the Arab investor, Syria is fine. But I don't think Westerners are ready," said Hadi Hindi, a British businessman. "Westerners need freedom and safety…. Here, all these things are not easy."