Phase II: The Electoral Process at work, April 22 & 25
· The main goal of the Syrian authorities with regard to the current elections was/is to ensure the exclusion from the political process of any truly independent candidates on the scene, ones that might oppose the planned nomination of President Bashar al-Assad to a second 7-year term in office.
· For this reason, the Baath Party increased its own share of seats in the Parliament by 2, from 132 to 134, and the overall share of the National Progressive Front by 2 from 167 to 170, leaving 80 seats only to the independents.
· The Syrian authorities seem to have issued secret directives calling for the support of “shadow lists,” that is, groups of independent candidates that delineate certain local balances from the central and local authorities’ perspective and who are loyal or at least beholden to them and who favor the status quo. These lists seemed destined to win in most districts.
· One way these lists were supported was by already writing in blue ink (the officially recognized color for writing on the ballot) the name of the shadow candidates on the ballots handed out to voters. The names written by the voters will, therefore, be disregarded, because the quote has already been filled and the names will be taken in the order they were written.
· Internal schisms within the local and central authorities, however, did manifest themselves in two main ways:
1) the issuance of certain directives calling for discouraging votes for known business figures, such as Muhammad Hamsho and Ihsan Sankar, despite their loyalty to the regime and intimate relations with many of it members. Clashing business and patronage interests seem at play here. But this did involve nonetheless an added element of manipulation to the electoral process, and the whole matter eventually played out in the electronic media on the second day of elections, further exposing the manipulative tactics employed by the regime. The existence of these directives was acknowledged by the candidates, but later denied by official figures
2) the appearance of more than one shadow list in certain places, such as Homs, where the list supported by the Governor seems to be competing against a list quietly supported by rivals from the local security branches (with a greater degree of support from the some in the central authorities than what the governor is receiving) who feel that the new governor is heavily intruding and undermining their long-established patronage system. They also detest his more obvious and flamboyant ways in being corrupt, as it tends to attract too much popular attention. A case in point is the governor’s attempt to establish further fiscal strains on independent candidates by imposing selectively enforced and collected fees and fines before and during the elections. The governor is expected to lose.
· Other irregularities seemed to be local inventions, rather than the result of direct central directives. They involved such things as:
1) finding ways around the use of secret ink to enable multiple voting, including not using at all, or removing it with nail polish (the elector can then apply for a new electoral card, claiming that his was lost or destroyed and vote again, and perhaps again, depending on how fast he can obtain another electoral card. Five hundred Syrian pound can help reduce the time for obtaining such a card to an hour, while the price for a single vote, or electoral card, was in the range of 1,000-3,000 SP in most cases)
2) early closing of certain electoral centers (common practice in al-Jazeerah in the north and in many rural areas elsewhere, especially Rural Aleppo)
3) absenteeism and dereliction, with electoral center employees not showing up on time, or at all (reported on the first day in some rural centers in Rural Aleppo), or disappearing for long hours during election day, making it impossible for people to vote
4) failure to provide a polling booth to ensure balloting secrecy, thus allowing for intimidation of voters.
· Interviews with random people who boycotted the elections indicate that their decision was a very conscious one and was meant as a sign of protest, rather than coming as a reflection of apathy. This decision led to the lowest reported electoral turnout in Syrian parliamentary history, with less than 4.5% overall taking part in the process (the figure never seemed to have risen above 20% even in the most active electoral districts).
· The appeals for boycott by the opposition did not seem to have fallen on deaf ears, as many reported to have been confirmed in their position when they heard the appeal made by opposition groups, especially that by the Damascus Declaration, for all the controversies surrounding it.
· This matter created the first real connection in years between the opposition and the grassroots. The decision to boycott the election and the call that was issued in this regard put the opposition and the people in the same footing, by showing that the opposition is not simply interested in power.
· But unless the opposition engages in more direct communication with the public this situation may not translate into actual large grassroots support.
· Other elements of note here: membership in the Baath Party is reported to be around 2.2 million people, with most of the support coming from rural areas, where Baath institutions and the state remain as the main service providers and are directly and intimately involved, along with the security apparatuses, in the local patronage system. The low turnout in some of these districts and area, therefore, is quite telling indeed.
· Still, it is safe to assume that the highest turnout did indeed emerge in rural areas.
· But to be more accurate, the physical turnout itself may not have been that high, or necessary, as the ability to collect electoral cards, and impress people to get them to begin with, was far more easy and accomplishable in these areas than in larger and more urban centers. The local Baath branches through with their more active and “motivated” memberships have played a key role here.
· The other pool of electorates where a similar dynamism was present, and has always been, is amongst the rank and file of the military and the security apparatuses, including those doing their compulsory service. In most cases, there people hand in their electoral cards to their superiors who proceeded to vote in accordance with received instructions, written and or oral. This, despite the existence of laws forbidding military personnel from taking part in the legislative elections (but not in the presidential referendum), for in the absence of monitors, there is nothing to prevent recourse to this vulnerable class to stuff the ballot boxes of "suitable" candidates.
· Yet another pool of such “willing” or, more exactly, easily coerced electorates, are the more active members in student unions and similar youth organizations. But even with this, direct observation indicate that the authorities still ended up with less than 200 actually ballots in the first day and a half of elections in the University of Damascus. Another very telling sign of dissent.
· A last pool of vulnerable electorate is made up of public sector employees whose very livelihood is directly on the line. These people are allowed to vote in-house in case of large institution, such as ministries, or are en masse bussed to the nearest electoral centers.
· And after all the restrictions, manipulations and coercion, the authorities have another chance to manipulate the process, namely during vote counting. For only officials from the Ministry of interior or appointed by the Ministry of Interior are allowed in the process. There are no external monitors of any sort, not even representatives of independent candidates, and the process takes place literally behind closed doors.
· Official figures with regard to turnout will naturally be very inflated. We have already heard of figures around 70% in Tartous, and 40% in Damascus and Aleppo. The high figure for Tartous might be related to the fact that it is the birthplace of former VP and a current leader of the opposition in exile, Mr. Abdul Halim Khaddam, in an attempt to show that he has no support or standing there. Our own observations in the district, albeit not as extensive as elsewhere, did not indicate an unusually high turnout rates. As such, it safe to assert that the figure is highly exaggerated for political reasons. As for Damascus and Aleppo, it is their size that is at play here, they are the two main urban centers in Syria, yet they “boast” the lowest turnout anywhere in the country in these particular elections, barring Qamishly, where the turnout was indeed dismal and insignificant. Even with a claim of 40%, official figures are in a sense conceding the reality of extremely low turnout in these two cities.
· Among participating electors and candidates, dissatisfaction and disgust ran high and erupted into violence in three places:
Hassakeh, where some clashes took place on the first day and led to the breaking of some windows and few minor injuries,
Homs, where the supporters of two rival candidates clashed on Tuesday when early results seemed to go against popular expectation and back in favor of the candidate supported by the notorious governor of Homs.
Raqqa, where full-blow rioting took place championed by votes in 20 electoral centers where the central authorities demanded a new round of voting to take place citing fraud allegations. The riots soon spiraled out of control and prevented the occurrence of new polling scheduled for Tuesday. The riots took place against the background of continuing competition between the two Arab tribes of al-Wildah (and its ally al-Sabkhat) and al-‘Afadlah. The new round of voting would have taking place in areas where the al-Wildah candidate seems to have won. Al-Wildah elders oppose a new round of local voting and demand either its expansion to include all the governorate, or the acceptance of current results and counts from the 20 centers under dispute.
· Some of our monitors were indeed harassed by local authorities, and one was arrested for a few hours before being released unharmed.
Our observers worked independently of each other, and with no direct coordination with each other, as they seldom had knowledge of each other's activities or existence. This modus operandi reelected our concern for their safety, and for their safety of the operation as a whole, and came in congruence with our mission aimed at fostering the emergence of greater popular civic awareness and the ability to participate in the decision making processes through participation in an activity that is quite unique under the current regime. It was not our intention to create a new political current.
Just as a reminder, we attach a list of official strategies for establishing further control and restrictions on independent candidates that was included in our preliminary report:
Financial restrictions with regard to campaign spending were imposed and seem meant mostly to undermine the ability of truly independent candidates, that is, those running outside the unofficial list systems devised in the 2003 elections, to compete, particularly those who have the necessary financial resources. According to the new regulations, the maximum spending by each candidate is put at 3 million SP (Syrian Pound) or little less than $60,000.
(The list system allows for a number of candidates to run together and share costs. Though there is no obligation here to elect all names on a certain list, electoral campaigns are run in such a manner as to encourage electors to vote for lists in their entirety. Lists are predominantly formed by pro-regime figures and frontmen, such has Muhammad Hamsho et al, and enjoy the support of security services.
But even without the list system, pro-regime candidates can still maneuver around the decree limiting campaign spending, considering that no specific implementation mechanisms have even been issued. This leaves the door open for the Ministry of Interior to enforce the regulations according to the whims of the Minister, making it clear that the law was intended merely as a potential weapon to crackdown on real independent candidates in the unlikely case of electoral victory. List members can also be supported by activities organized and sponsored on their behalf by friends. The activities of security apparatuses could easily intimidate the friends of real independent candidates from launching similar efforts).
At an early stage of the elections, there was a further restriction on spending issued by the Governor of Homs in central Syria. the Governor’s edict called for exacting a “refundable fee” or a “loan” from each independent candidate to the tune of 100,000 SP ($2,000) meant as a security deposit against potential irregularities. The order was rescinded two days after its issuance due to outcry and what seems like an attempt by the Syrian authorities to remove a clear semblance of impropriety. The event does, nonetheless, serve to illustrate that the main concern of regime officials with regard to the elections is indeed to find ways to undermine the chances of real independent candidates at getting elected.
Launching security investigations of independent candidates and their families and friends by all major security apparatuses: military, political and state. Visits by security officers to local community leaders advising them against voting for certain candidates are taking place quite regularly at this stage.
Running bogus or ghost candidates who are members of the Baath Party and other National Progressive Front parties as independents in an attempt to: a) inflate numbers and compensate for the general lack of credibility that the elections have as well as voter apathy (last elections witnessed a turnout of less than 7% of eligible voters), b) undercut independent candidates by running multiple rivals against them in their district, often, people from their particular ethnic background, tribe, and/or even family. Bogus candidates can also serve as a way for the Syrian authorities to funnel funds into the electoral process meant to undercut real independent candidates.
(It is also true that some of the NPF candidates running as independents are merely jockeying for power within the ranks of their parties, trying to gain a foothold in the parliament despite being excluded from the official list that their party has adopted and which is, by law, guaranteed a seat in the Parliament).
These practices are more than sufficient to illustrate the continuing disregard by the Syrian authorities for all legal norms in the country, as if the process was not rigged enough already by constitutional means. Indeed, considering the nature of the Syrian Constitution, it makes no sense at all for Syria to have been accepted as signatory to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
For this reason, the opposition has virtually no chance to challenge the system in this game, and the Assads are likely to get another staunchly yes-parliament. The best that can be done in this regard, therefore, is to continue to expose this state of affairs, which can only serve to discredit any claim to the effect that Bashar al-Assad has any real intention to reform the system.
April 25, 2007