March 15, 2014

New Syrian Election Law - Mere "Ink on Paper"

New Constitution Referendum Ballot - 2012

The newly-enacted election law in Syria that received a lot of media attention may cause casual observers to take new interest in how politics are played in Syria. Unfortunately, it is merely window dressing - things will remain the same.

Last week, Syria's parliament - a virtual extension of the office of President Bashar al-Asad - unanimously approved a change in the the manner in which Syrian presidential elections are conducted. In the future, the names of multiple candidates will be allowed to appear on the ballot, rather than the referendum on the one candidate put forward by the Ba'th Party (that would be Bashar al-Asad). Al-Asad's current (his second) seven-year term expires this summer.

The new law codifies a provision approved in the 2012 constitutional referendum. The ballot above was for that referendum - vote "agree" or "not agree." According to a provision in the newly approved constitution, multiple parties are allowed and no party (a reference to the ruling Ba'th Party) is considered the guaranteed leader. As the Arabs say, this is merely hibr 'ala waraq (ink on paper).

There is speculation that Dr. al-Asad may run for a third-term - I would say it is a lock: he's "running." I put that in quotes because the mere thought that there is a choice is ridiculous. Technically, the new law also presents a challenge for the incumbent president. Article 88 of the 2012 constitution limits the president to two terms. The exact wording is interesting - it does not literally say two terms, it says a maximum of one re-election. There will no doubt be some legalistic interpretation that will allow al-Asad to run for a third term.

Pardon my skepticism, but laws and the constitution are not impediments to the al-Asad clan. When Bashar's father Hafiz al-Asad died in June 2000, the 34-year old Bashar was not eligible to assume the presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic - the constitution stated that the president must be 40 years of age. No problem - the Syrian majlis al-sha'ab (parliament) met in emergency session and within an hour voted to lower the minimum age for candidates from 40 to 34. What a coincidence.

In their next action, the majlis appointed Bashar leader of the ruling Ba'th Party and commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces. His name was immediately put forward for president, and according to the government, was elected with 97 percent of the votes. In May 2007, Bashar was approved as president for another seven-year term, with the official result of 97.6 percent of the votes. Although this was vote conducted under the previous presidential referendum system with no other candidates on the ballot, I doubt the outcome under the new rules will change.

Pundits have cited the Syrian majlis law as a step forward for the country, now wracked by three years of civil war. The rebels celebrated today - March 15 - as the start of the fourth year of the struggle against the regime. A portion of the new law also sets strict residency requirements for candidates to appear on the multi-party ballot - 10 years of continuous residency in the country. Since many of the potential challengers to Bashar have left the country for their own safety, they technically do not qualify to run. I maintain that the election system in Syria is so corrupt that this new law is all show and Bashar al-Asad will be re-elected with the same margins as he and his father have always enjoyed.

I speak from experience - I lived in Syria for a few election cycles and saw first hand how it works. Voting in Syria is not like voting in the United States - a Syrian physician friend explained it to me. On election day, he went to work at the hospital and was called to the office of the administrator. In the office were two Ba'th Party "officials," more like thugs, who told him that he was much too busy at the hospital to go to the polls and that they had taken the liberty of completing his ballot for him. They asked if he had a problem with that. He thanked them for their consideration. That's how you garner 97 percent of the vote.

If you are a gambler, I would think that the re-election of Bashar al-Asad is a sure bet.