(Issuing a report on the Syrian Parliamentary Elections days before they actually take place is meant to underscore their enduring irrelevance. The actual results of the elections are not likely to have any serious impact on the conclusions below)
Syrian Parliamentary Elections under the Baath – A Brief Background
Parliamentary elections in Syria have for long been met with popular apathy, a phenomenon that is in no small part related to the formal, if not downright formulaic, role assigned to the parliament in the decision-making process in the country under Baath rule.
Indeed, according to Syrian Constitution imposed by the Baath party, following a “popular” referendum in 1973, the President of the country can dissolve the parliament very much at will. Moreover, the parliament has not been charged with giving a vote of confidence to the Cabinet ever since 1970. Conversely, it has never withdrawn its confidence from it or from any of its ministers, performance and corruption allegations notwithstanding.
The Parliament has also failed to propose any new laws for over three decades now, as it is only empowered to discuss laws proposed by the Cabinet. But even in this regard, the Parliament never dared reject to endorse any of these laws.
Furthermore, the Parliament has absolutely no role when it comes to charting the country’s foreign policy and, as such, it may not discuss critical and pivotal issues such as the Syrian-Lebanese or Syrian-Iraqi relations. Its formal role in this regard is merely to endorse the policies of the executive branch. As a policy-making body, therefore, the parliament is rendered useless and irrelevant by law, and the people of Syria know that, hence their enduring lack of interest in parliamentary processes.
This state of affairs did not change in nay way change under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, and the electoral code has witnessed only a minor amendment recently putting an unenforceable and easily sidestepped cap on election spending.
Another handicap of the Syrian Parliament pertains to the ways different electoral districts are represented in it. According to existing laws, each governorate represents only a single voting district. This creates a de facto cut-off between independent candidates and their potential electorates. For in this system independent candidates cannot represent the interests of their local communities, as they have to seek supporters from all over the governorate in which they are running. The larger the governorate the more daunting such task and the greater the cut-off between candidates and electorates. This situation clearly favors candidates who are rich and/or are supported by local Baath officials who can help them gain the local support needed. The system a priori and de jure deprives people from being represented by figures who come from their ranks and are more attuned to their particular needs, aspirations and concerns.
But one of the most glaring defects related to the parliamentary elections must be the lack of a clear monitoring mechanism and of a transparent judicial process that can ensure their fairness.
The dismal picture is completed by the fact that the Baath-imposed Constitution already stipulates that two thirds of parliament members (that is, 167 members out of total 250 parliament members) should be derived from the Baath Party and its allies from National Progressive Front. Ever since the introduction of this new system into the political life in Syria in 1974, not a single candidate of the ruling National Progressive Front has ever lost an election regardless of the amount of votes he/she received. And numerous are the cases when vote rigging did take place to compensate for the low votes that certain candidates received, turning their dismal showing into record-making events.
If the Constitution guarantees the Baath Party a de facto and de jure control of the country, the shadow government that actually rules the country, which is made up of the President, his family and his top military, intelligence and civilian advisors, ensure, or try to ensure, total control.
Taking all these facts together, popular apathy should not come as a surprise to anyone. Official numbers might put voter turnout at 63%, it self a rather low figure considering the totalitarian nature of the regime, but more the realistic estimates that get eventually leaked rarely exceed 7%.
Effectively then, the Syrian people have no faith in the system, as they realize that their participation or lack thereof will only lead to the same result. Cynicism is this regard has become so ubiquitous that even official press is making light of the event and ridiculing the candidates, all and sundry. The system has become so farcical, then, it laughs at itself, like a bad comedian who laughs at his own jokes.
Syrian Parliamentary Elections 2007 – the Stakes:
Having observed the various developments and procedures related to the ongoing legislative elections in Syria over the last few weeks, it seems rather clear now that the main goal of the Syrian authorities with regard to these elections 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. In other words, the goal is to curtail the potential emergence of a Syrian Ayman Nour, a development that could easily compound the increasing and dilemmas of the Assad regime. For an unruly MP, at this stage when the Assad regime is trying to break out of its international isolation, may not be easily swatted aside as happened with former MPs Riad Seif and Mamoun al-Homsi back in 2001.
In theory, though, and even should these plans work, the Assad regime could still be blindsided by someone that it trusts. The always suspicious and paranoid Assads must be aware of that, however, and for this reason, it is quite likely that the session in which the President is to be nominated will not be televised live to afford the regime a further opportunity at clampdown if necessary. Should the event be televised live, it could be seen as a sign of the complete control that the Assads have managed to exert over every phase and aspect of the electoral process.
Thus, and unless a major well-organized current of disaffection has developed within the ranks of the Baath Party itself, one that is capable of working itself into the electoral game, despite all attempts at scrutiny, exclusion and intimidation, and is willing to take the risk of challenging the system head on in a parliamentary showdown meant to further erode the legitimacy of the Assad regime, the Syrian Parliament, or the People’s Assembly as it is called by the Baath regime, is not likely to prove a serious obstacle in the face of nominating President Bashar for a second term. As such, challenging the credibility and legitimacy of the Assad regime will have to take place outside the boundaries of state-controlled institutions.
This is not a too surprising realization, of course. But it does underscore and justify the decision for monitoring the event from a distance to avoid giving it any kind of credibility or international legitimacy.
We have to bear in mind, however, that efforts in this regard could be undermined by ongoing political developments in the region, as the international community seems to be quickly developing different priorities regarding its relations with Syria, ones that pay little attention to issues of democracy and electoral rights and propriety.
This notwithstanding, below are some of the current strategies and tactics currently deployed by the Syrian authorities to fill the country’s long-dilapidated parliament completely by yes-men (or, in this case, yes-sidi) of all stripes. But first, a brief reminder of what is actually at work here might serve to drive the point home.
The Parliamentary Elections 2007: official strategies for establishing further control and restrictions on independent candidates
- 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.
The current Syrian Constitution and electoral laws, imposed on the country by Baath Party ever since 1973, are far from democratic in nature, and they do in effect rig the electoral system a priori and de jure in favor of the Baath Party and its satellites in the National Progressive Front ensuring their continued domination of the political process in the country,
As such, the refusal by the Assad regime to allow for real independent voices to arise, in a system that is specifically designed to preclude any possibility of an independent internal challenge against the system should be taken as clear sign of the Assads continued desire to horde all political initiative and to stifle all attempts at introducing true political and economic reforms in the country.
After seven years in office, and by continuing to endorse this state of affairs and allowing it to fester, Bashar al-Assad is proving to one and all that he is not the closet reformer that some were wishing him to be, but a real full-fledged autocrat who is seeking to increase and indefinitely perpetuate his power and his chokehold on the political and economic life in Syria. It is for this reason that the Assad regime should continue to wallow in isolation, lest the international community becomes a willing accomplice in the crimes being perpetrated daily by the Assad regime against the well-being of the Syrian people, not to mention the well-being of the peoples of the region as a whole.