The Syrian Authorities and the Legislative Elections 2007: A Preliminary Report

April 11, 2007
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 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 further justify our plans for focusing mostly on mounting an externally-orchestrated media-based challenge to the Syrian President in connection to the upcoming presidential referendum.
We have to bear in mind, however, that our efforts in this regard cold be undermined by ongoing political developments in the region, and the success that the Assads are having with regard to breaking their international isolation. The Arab Summit has served to reinvigorate the Assads regime to a great extant, and the scheduled visits by a number of American officials to the country, especially that of the Speaker of US Senate, Nancy Bilosi, are bound to do the same. Statements like the one made with regard to the ongoing trial of political prisoners in Syria will help balance things out. But the task ahead is getting increasingly difficult nonetheless. The international community is 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, the following 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:
  • Financial restrictions with regard to campaign spending are 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.

    (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). 
  • An attempt at issuing further restrictions in the Homs Governorate by the local Governor, Iyyad Ghazal, by demanding “refundable fees” or “loans” from independent candidates to the tune of 100,000 SP as a security deposit against potential irregularities. The order was rescinded two days after issuance, due to outcry and what seems like an attempt by the Syrian authorities to remove a clear semblance of impropriety.
  • Security investigations of independent candidates by all major security apparatuses: military, political and state.
  • Security intimidation of potential supporters of real independent candidates (visits by security officers to local community leaders advising them against voting for certain candidates are taken 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. 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 we can do is to continue to expose this state of affairs, and to remind the Syrian people that more of the same under the Assad will lead the country into bankruptcy. This should be the focus of our upcoming campaign.
Despite the fact that the Syrian Constitution and electoral laws, imposed on the country by Baath Party ever since 1973, are far from democratic in nature, and that 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, there is nonetheless a good case to be made for insisting on pressuring the Syrian regime to accept international monitors over the electoral process, for refraining from its campaign to harass the few real independent candidates out there, and to allow for some measure of representation of the real popular will in the political process in the country.
The refusal by the Assads regime to allow even for this nominal gesture to take place, one that cannot undermine the hold of his regime on power in the country, since, as we noted, that hold is guaranteed by the Constitution, is a measure of its 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, Bashar al-Assad, by continuing to endorse this state of affairs and allowing it to fester, is proven to one and all that he is not the closet reformer 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 his country. 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.