Posted by on June 05, 2014 in Blog

On Tuesday June 3rd, Syria held what was effectively its first presidential election in more than 50 years, with President Bashar al-Assad facing opponents for the first time. Needless to say, the timing of the elections could not be worse.

The voting, which took place amidst mass carnage, has received widespread criticism from the international community, many of whom have labeled the process a “parody of democracy” and “illegitimate." In spite of the criticism, Damascus’s allies –Russia and Iran- supported the vote, with Tehran sending election observers and monitors.

On social media, pro-opposition Syrians criticized what they perceive to be the "blood elections." In the lead up to the election, one opposition page put up a campaign poster that mocked al-Assad's campaign slogan calling for "unity," by photo-shopping the image of Iranian Leader Ayatollah Khamenei where al-Assad would be.

Of the estimated 2.8 million Syrians living abroad as expats or refugees, only an estimated 200,000 were able to vote. This is due to two factors: first, many nations closed their Syrian embassies following the outbreak of the revolution. Voting did not take place in 11 Arab nations where embassies had been closed since 2012.

While long lines formed at embassies in Beirut, Amman and in some European capitals, a few countries including France, Germany and Turkey barred voting, refusing to facilitate sham elections on their territory and citing an international convention that gives the host government the authority to decide whether to allow an embassy to conduct elections. A noteworthy example is the UAE, with a Syrian expat community of around 30,000 eligible voters.

The second reason the voting situation has become troublesome for many refugees is due to a ban on allowing refugees and expats that left the country via unofficial crossings and routes to vote.  While the majority of the expat community in Lebanon and Jordan came in officially, a significant number in Turkey and Iraq did not go through government controlled crossings.

Syria’s electoral commission chief made this prohibition explicit last month. While this already limits voting from the Syrian community outside their nation’s borders, there remained limited voting even within Syria. The constitutional court's spokesman Majid al-Khadra noted that elections would not take place in the city of Raqa, which has fallen under the control of jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), nor were there polling stations in much of the countryside, notably northern and eastern Syria and around Damascus, or in areas of certain cities under rebel control, including Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.

Many Syrians who were able to vote at the 39 embassies that held elections worldwide, seemed to be supporters of the Assad regime, with his poster raised joyfully everywhere from Beirut to Belarus. Photos of Maher Abd al-Hafiz and Hassan Abd el-Nouri, al-Assad’s relatively unknown opponents, remained largely absent.

When asked, many refugees expressed a common fear. “Of course, I’m voting for Bashar,” one woman said. “Not because I love him, but to protect ourselves, my children and husband, because I am scared that they might be arrested or beaten [if I don’t].” There was also a sense of the Assad regime’s influence  beyond Syria’s borders, with reports of men identifying themselves as members of a Lebanese political party allied to Assad visiting refugee camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and noting down names of Assad’s supporters.

The constitutional reforms made in 2012 facilitated the multiparty elections that took place this week, but whether the reforms were an incremental move toward a genuine democracy or were enacted simply to further safeguard Assad’s consolidation of power should be questioned.  

For example, along with Article 8 which allows the state to conduct multiparty election, some other changes should not be overlooked. Changes to articles 154 and 87 now allow Assad to potentially and effectively remain in power until 2028. This could result in a significant impasse for the international community and the Syrian opposition’s efforts toward regime change.

Further,  Syria’s judiciary set  a stringent criteria for the nominees—candidates must be Muslim, must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years (conveniently disqualifying exiled opposition figures) and must have the support of at least 35 members of the 250-strong parliament. This explains why only two viable candidates remained. These two are largely seen as token candidates, meant to enhance the legitimacy of Assad’s expected win, and even they hold questionable hope and limited potential to reform the country. This is particularly true for Maher Abdyl-Hafiz Hajjar, a former communist parliamentarian and member of the Syrian communist party for sixteen years.

The elections send a powerful signal of Assad’s control. Former U.S ambassador to Syria Robert Ford criticized the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach, as well as their inability to respond to the fast changing events on the ground. These elections could prove to be a critical tipping point shifting the odds in Assad’s favor. Hopefully Ford’s message will be heard and the United States will find effective ways to respond accordingly.

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