Despite a boycott by the opposition, the predetermined rejection of the results by many Western countries, and the US saying it will not recognise the elections and does not see them as part of a political solution to the crisis in Syria, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is insisting on holding presidential elections on 26 May.
The opposition says the results will be a foregone conclusion because the elections are being held under the same conditions as over the past five decades, and the results will be predetermined in favour of the Al-Assad family. Former president Hafez Al-Assad ruled the country for three decades after a military coup in 1970 followed by Bashar Al-Assad, his son.
For half a century, presidential elections in Syria have been held according to the same format, with only minor differences from one election to the next. They all take place under the control of the Syrian security agencies, according to a tailored constitution that serves the Al-Assads and with only one real candidate.
Although recent elections have sometimes included more candidates for window-dressing purposes, these have no weight with the Syrian public and are mostly unknowns. The elections are held in the absence of any local, Arab, international or UN monitoring.
Over the past 50 years, civil servants in Syria have been forced to go to ballot stations, along with students and army personnel, and hand over ballots marked with the Al-Assad family candidate under close scrutiny by the intelligence agencies. These record the names of those not choosing Al-Assad, abstaining from voting, or spoiling their ballot papers.
The results have been sweeping and predetermined, with the incumbent winning 99 per cent of the ballots when Hafez Al-Assad stood. Bashar Al-Assad has won the elections with a slightly lower percentage of 88 to 98 per cent of the votes. He is the primary candidate in the upcoming presidential elections and is supported by the security agencies.
Bashar Al-Assad inherited the reins from his father after a surprise constitutional amendment in 2000 followed by a manufactured referendum in which he won 99.7 per cent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2007 with 97.6 per cent of the vote and again in 2014 during the Syrian conflict with 88.7 per cent of the ballot. He is expected to win again within the same range.
Over the past five decades, the Syrian opposition has rejected the elections, been banned from participating, or boycotted them in despair. The opposition says that the ballot boxes are never opened to be counted, describing the elections as a “farce”.
Today, more than half the Syrian population is either displaced or has fled as refugees, the economy has collapsed, half the infrastructure in the country has been destroyed, poverty is rampant and many Syrians live in refugee camps on the borders with neighbouring countries. The country is hosting some five foreign armies on its territory and has been suffering what seems to have been an unending war.
European countries and the US say they will not recognise the elections, and Russia has failed to convince the Syrian regime to postpone them, even if only until conditions improve.
Khaled Al-Mutlaq, a dissident member of the Syrian armed forces, commented that “Al-Assad is trying to find the space to manoeuvre until he produces something that helps him get re-elected. He is relying on his father’s legacy, when Hafez Al-Assad succeeded in regaining control of the Syrian people after the massacres at Hama, Aleppo and Homs in the early 1980s,” a reference to atrocities carried out by the earlier Al-Assad regime.
Hozan Khadaj, a Syrian commentator, said that “although military conflict is raging in the country, and Al-Assad has lost control of 40 per cent of Syrian territory, the decision to hold the presidential elections, and the regime fully participating with strong Russian support, is just an attempt to uphold the status quo. Meanwhile, the political track that should lead to a peace agreement in Syria has faltered, now reduced to drafting a new constitution which remains a matter of contention.”
“Everyone knows that the legitimacy of Al-Assad and his regime collapsed when the first shot was fired at the Syrian people, and regaining it is impossible. But the international legitimacy of Al-Assad remains, and this is what Al-Assad and his allies have been working on, especially Syria’s Russian allies,” Al-Mutlaq added.
Russia, the Syrian regime’s strongest backer, understands that the regime’s legitimacy has declined, with even its supporters blaming it for the deterioration of living standards. The weakness of the international community with regard to Syria and the disparity of positions among regional and international powers has obliged Russia to support Al-Assad in the elections, even if it would prefer to delay them.
The UN, US, the European countries and the Syrian opposition all want to see free-and-fair elections in Syria, according to a new constitution and UN Security Council Resolution 2254. These should be held under UN supervision with the guaranteed participation of millions of Syrian refugees and displaced inside and outside the country.
But none of this will happen in this week’s presidential elections. There cannot be common ground between the opposing camps after the ten years of war that have destroyed Syria.
Instead, the elections further complicate the Syrian crisis and will delay the anticipated political solution. They will not restore the regime’s legitimacy. The results are a foregone conclusion and will only act to continue the present system.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly