Fifty-one candidates hoping to run in the elections for Syria’s presidency submitted their names to the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court last week, the first time that such a large number had ever put themselves forward for the presidential race.
With the exception of incumbent Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the 50 contenders are mostly little-known figures who are unlikely to mount a serious challenge.
The court said it had approved three candidates on Monday, with its decisions being subject to appeal. Besides Al-Assad, the court selected Abdullah Salloum Abdullah, former minister of state for People’s Assembly Affairs, and one figure from the opposition, Mahmoud Ahmed Mari, head of the Syrian Arab Organisation for Human Rights and secretary-general of the Syrian Democratic Front.
After a decade of civil war in Syria, the country is holding its second presidential elections in wartime. But they are likely only to confirm that Al-Assad will be the winner. The other contenders are only expected to emphasise that there was a democratic process.
Meanwhile, the campaign has opened for Al-Assad’s fourth term as president. There have been parades through boulevards that have been destroyed in cities like Aleppo, where posters are already up for the elections to be held in late May.
Syrian citizens and refugees abroad are being urged to register at Syrian embassies and consulates. Some voters registering at the Beirut embassy told Syrian television that “we’re going to vote for the right man in the right place. With blood and soul, we sacrifice for you, Bashar,” as reported by Sama TV, a mouthpiece of the government.
The regime’s media arms have published posts about rallies supporting Al-Assad’s re-election abroad, including a video from Germany.
But a decade of war has left the country in rubble and killed over 388,000 people. There is a deepening economic crisis, a rapidly deteriorating health situation due to the spread of the Covid-19 and Western rejection of the elections in advance.
None of these things have stopped Al-Assad, who has spent 20 years ruling the country in succession to his father, former president Hafez Al-Assad, from claiming another seven years in power.
“Elections in Syria are a standing joke. A regime that has destroyed a third of the country, lost control of another third and brought in forces to share it with another power, isn’t holding real elections,” said Qoutaiba Yassin, a Syrian journalist.
Opposition figures who live abroad are excluded from running for the presidency, as the country’s electoral law stipulates that candidates need to have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past decade.
The rejected applicants, who have no political or social base, have never run for municipal or provincial elections before, have limited information about them on the Internet, and do not have a clear strategy for the country or electoral campaigns.
The court will announce the final list of contenders at an unspecified date. It is not yet known when the candidates can announce their electoral campaigns or hold presidential debates with fewer than three weeks left as Syrians abroad will vote on 20 May.
Among the as yet unapproved candidates are Faten Ali Nahar, 50 years old, a lawyer and the first woman to make a bid for the position, Muhannad Shaaban, 41 years old, who was a parliamentary candidate last year and Ahmed Abdel-Ghani, an author and journalist.
The elections are unlikely to change the long rule of the Baath Party in Syria or to bring an alternative figure to power through a real electoral process.
“These elections do not represent hope for the Syrian people. They are illegal, and there is not a safe environment. To make them genuine, Al-Assad must step down, the regime should be prosecuted for its crimes, political detainees should be released and the displaced should be allowed to come back home,” said Khaled Al-Qoutaini, a defector from the Syrian army.
“There should be a transitional governing body and the announcement of a new constitution. When all this happens, there will be authentic and free elections.”
In the 2014 presidential elections, two supposed rivals of Al-Assad lacking any public weight, Hassan Al-Nuri and Maher Hajjar, ran, but they issued statements supporting Al-Assad in the race.
“When Al-Assad decided to open the door to other candidates, he brought in 50 candidates, none of whom is known outside their neighbourhood. Most of them hold up his picture and a number of them have even declared that they will vote for him,” Yassin told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Syrian elections do not allow genuine public debate about the president, the ruling party, the government formation or the people’s will and their choices. Syria had earlier not seen any contested presidential elections since the first term of Hafez Al-Assad in 1971, but only referendums with voters asked to approve or reject the Al-Assad family candidate.
Al-Qoutaini said that any citizen who voted in the past referendums had only one option, which was voting yes. Voting no “could mean prison or exile or murder and intimidation,” he said. “Syria has not had the minimum rights of citizenship and democracy for 50 years.”
Bashar Al-Assad received 97 per cent of the vote in the elections for his first two terms, and many observers believe that the coming elections will be a farce designed to cement his autocratic rule.
After Syria amended its constitution in 2012 to stipulate holding presidential elections instead of having referendums, 24 people submitted their applications in 2014. But the process ended in the Supreme Constitutional Court, and only two candidates were deemed eligible to run for president in addition to Al-Assad.
Al-Assad won with an official 88 per cent of the vote. The government does not publish the voter turnout.
“Al-Assad’s intelligence apparatus controls the elections. Syria’s ruling system is sectarian and security based. Anyone who runs in a contest with him is an extra in a farce,” Al-Qoutaini said.
Some Syrians boycott the elections, while opposition groups refuse to participate, seeing them as a cynical ploy by the regime. Among the refugees and those who have been displaced, some are afraid of having their papers confiscated by the authorities of the countries where they are staying and others are not willing to participate in the re-election of a man who has turned their lives into chaos through civil war.
UN estimates of the number of Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries are of some 6.6 million people, while another 6.7 million internally displaced are inside Syria.
In 2014, ten countries did not host elections among Syrian nationals living on their territory after they had boycotted Syria after the breakout of the civil war, three of which had the biggest numbers of refugees, namely Egypt, Turkey and Jordan.
Other countries allow expatriate voting to be held in Syrian diplomatic missions, which requires that voters must have passports and also have the financial ability to bear the expense of moving from one country to another in order to vote.
While Syria urges its nationals abroad, most of whom are refugees, to vote, sometimes it is not safe for them to do so. The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch has documented cases of Syrian refugees being interrogated and detained upon their return. For many Syrians, taking part in the elections could pose a risk and potentially expedite a forced return.
“The best circumstances for Syrian refugees abroad are in Europe, then Turkey, then the Arab countries. Their worst situation is in Lebanon, where they are subjected to discrimination and attacks, and where the worst conditions are in the refugee camps during the winter,” Yassin said.
“However, they still do not want to go back to Syria under the Al-Assad regime.”