Syria's predictable faux election still had a few surprises

Syria's predictable faux election still had a few surprises
10 min read
22 July, 2020
Syria's parliamentary elections resulted in another predictably huge win for the ruling Baath Party, but there were still some insights into the state of the economy.
Around a third of the voting population in regime areas took part [Getty]

Pro-Assad media portrayed this week's parliamentary election as an act of defiance against "foreign interference" in Syria and a vote of confidence for the ruling Baath Party. 

The coverage ignored the regime's mishandling of Syria's flatlined economy and the near-starvation conditions for many Syrians, which have dominated the headlines elsewhere.

The only signs on Sunday of Syria's many woes were the face masks worn by Bashar and Asmaa al-Assad as they left their palace to cast their votes, with the threat of Covid-19 now at its peak in the country.

Coronavirus election

The parliamentary elections were twice postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic, but went ahead Sunday - a message to the world that the regime will not reform its broken political system and will push ahead with its current destructive trajectory. 

The election campaign also showed the regime's utter disregard for Syrian lives, Bente Scheller, head of Middle East and North Africa Department, Heinrich Boll Foundation Berlin, told The New Arab, taking place with Covid-19 deaths in Syria at their highest.

"It could not be more obvious that this election is being used by the regime to show the world it is a 'normal democracy' and can hold elections when it chooses. But I think this year, with corona and the economic crisis, it was more of a farce than ever," Scheller said.

Syrians living overseas - which make up around a third of the population - were not allowed to vote not recognised by the UN, while areas outside regime control were similarly barred from the election. 

This is one of the most powerless parliaments in the world so there will be nothing new in terms of policies
- Bente Scheller

"It was a very thin slice of the overall Syrian population that could take part in the election," said Scheller. 

"Even those who vote are not doing it because they believe anything will change but to affirm that they are loyal to the regime. They do it because they are forced to, and it will be noted if they don't, so there is nothing serious about these elections."

With the election excluding between a half and two-thirds of the Syrian population it appeared to be for domestic consumption only, but there were other dynamics at play.

For outsiders, it appears to be an incomprehensible paradox that a regime, with such brazen authoritarian tendencies, should celebrate apparent multi-party elections and public voting. 

But for years the Syrian regime has self-conferred legitimacy through these faux parliamentary and presidential elections, where the results are always predictable and irrelevant.

The purpose of voting is to mobilise supporters, weed out opponents, and force Syrians to take part in a meaningless and humiliating act of state-managed theatre.

Click to enlarge

"Elections have always been held in very high esteem by the international community and for Assad this kind of legitimacy - through consensus - is important. It is why he absolutely insists on having these elections," said Scheller.

"To the inside, but even more to the outside, this kind of legitimacy is very important for the regime because it has its critics who refer to martial law and the terrorism legislation and say, 'we don't have a democracy', which of course is the case."

Historic legacy

The election will decide the make-up of the People's Council of Syria parliament, which since its formation in 1973 has been dominated by the ruling Baath Party.

The Baath-led National Progressive Front includes some allied socialist, communist, and Nasserist parties, but their main purpose is to present a veneer of political pluralism, particularly after constitutional changes in 2012. 

Whether the Socialist Union Party secures more seats than the Arab Socialist Union Party is not important; analysts say the parliament is a third-rate state institution with policy decided by Assad and his inner circle of cronies.

"This is one of the most powerless parliaments in the world so there will be nothing new in terms of policies," said Scheller.

It is basically a narrowing of the regime's social base on its most sectarian and paramilitary end
- Thomas Pierret

"What is significant is that many war profiteers have been on the candidates list and have replaced the 'opposition' handpicked by the regime."

Despite the insignificance of the results, the election process presents some glimpses into recent changes within the regime's power structure, as well as the dire state of the Syrian economy.

"We can learn from this that the regime now has very little resources," said Scheller.

"They could give whatever privileges they wanted during the war but now they are giving away parliamentary seats, which is a tiny additional privilege for people who have enriched themselves so much during the war."

Rump parliament

Thomas Pierret, senior researcher, CNRS-Ireman, Aix-en-Provence, said Hafez al-Assad's main motivation in creating the rump parliament in 1971 was to broaden the regime's base beyond its initial core of Baathist "peasants and workers".

Two-thirds of the parliament's seats were reserved for the Baath Party and satellite parties through the National Progressive Front, while the remaining third were left for "independent candidates" drawn in particular from traditional Sunni elites, explained Pierret. 

"It was a way of bringing businessmen, Sunni clerics, and tribal chiefs on board who were not part of the regime's base," said Pierret.

"The regime expanded its base when it retreated somewhat from socialist policies and this was a way of including these people, but it was not about giving them more power because it is a rump parliament."

There were times the regime felt more secure and might interfere less directly in the election process.

"Parliament was allowed to debate some issues which weren't a matter of life of death for the regime, for example family law. There was also some genuine competition during elections between regime cronies in Damascus, or tribal clans in Raqqa," said Pierret.

During the regime's brutal suppression of a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it put compliant communists forward as "independent" candidates, due to its lack of faith in the urban Sunni class.

Pierret sees some parallels between now and the regime's treatment of the rump parliament during the 1980s, as it fills parliament with paramilitary leaders and business elite who have helped finance its war machine.

"There was the same process of narrowing the regime's social base, but the paramilitary dimension was far less spectacular," he said.

Despite the "big win" for the Baath Party this election does not indicate that the ruling political faction will obtain further powers, more the continued irrelevance of minor political actors and further entrenchment of a business and security elite.

"It is basically a narrowing of the regime's social base on its most sectarian and paramilitary end," said Pierret. 

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party - viewed as Syria's "second" political party - did form a militia during the war, but the force was completely overshadowed in terms of power and prestige by regime, Iranian and Russian-backed paramilitaries.

"The Baath Party has retained relevance, but it cannot set its own policies. The Baath is a patronage machine, but it is absolutely powerless. It is an instrument of control but nobody cares about what happens within it," said Pierret.

Paramilitary power

The election has thrown up a few surprises. There have been disappointments for politicians known as strong supporters of the regime and among the most rabid opponents of the revolution. 

Alawite politician Nabil Saleh, who openly criticised a recent restructuring of the ministry of religious affairs, which he viewed as "Islamising Syria", withdrew from the competition shortly before the election. 

Generally, these elections fall within the same regime tactics that we have seen over the last nine years 
- Dima Moussa

Former Aleppo MP Fares Shehabi was arguably side-lined due to the lack of rewards and resources the regime can distribute among its supporters. 

"The regime had to make choices based on its limited resources and had to reward its most hardcore supporters, possibly at the expense of others,” said Pierret.

"It is not that Shehabi has become completely useless it is that there only a certain number of seats in Aleppo and there are people it might be more useful to reward."

Shehabi was livid on social media when he announced on social media on Tuesday that he had lost his seat, while his powerful political rival, Hussam Qaterji, will remain an Aleppo MP, one of Syria's richest men and who oversees a powerful paramilitary force.

The ostracisation of politicians like Shehabi for war profiteers and militia leaders such as Qaterji has been predicted for some time. Earlier this month, Asharq Al-Awsat said that Assad would use the election as an opportunity to form a "war council", after allies - including Qaterji - were sanctioned by the US.

"Qaterji is seen as a rising star in Syria's war economy, while Shehabi is a declining one. If the regime could please all its supporters it would do," said Pierret.

Shehabi has seen his own business interests and influence in Aleppo slip away to Qaterji, leading to accusations by the former MP that war lords were now ruling Syria. 

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Pierret believes that Qaterji's powerful status and the continued criticism from Shehabi could have led to the latter's ousting and has deep historical roots.

"There is a lot going on at the local level. The Qaterji-Shehabi rivalry is an avatar for an old struggle between the urban trader families, such as the Shehabis, and outsiders, like the Qaterjis, who originate from Aleppo's eastern countryside's tribal environment," said Pierret.

"For the record, tribal elements, either as paramilitaries or as members of the security forces, played a key role in crushing the Islamist insurgency in the 1980s."

No change

Dima Moussa, a Syrian opposition politician, said that election will change little in Syria and reflects Assad's obsession with promoting an image of normalcy and stability in regime areas.

"Generally, these elections fall within the same regime tactics that we have seen over the last nine years, that is, carrying on as if everything is normal and the country is not war-torn, where half of the population is displaced internally and beyond the borders, nearly half of the country is still outside the regime control, and there is massive destruction of entire neighbourhoods and town," Moussa told The New Arab.

"Particularly at this phase, with the economic situation at its worst over the last decade, and possible longer, with no real effort by the regime to take real measures to improve the economic conditions even minimally to improve people's livelihood and access to the bare minimum."

The parliamentary election turnout this year was just 33 percent, below the more-than-half who took part in the 2016 poll.

Authorities blamed the coronavirus pandemic for the low turnout, despite numerous reports of students and workers being forced to vote.

The regime is interested in maintaining those who will continue its policies and practices
- Dima Moussa

"Particularly at this phase - with the economic situation at its worst over the last decade, and possible longer - with no real effort by the regime to take real measures to improve the economic conditions," said Moussa.

"This makes interest at its lowest and far from being a priority by Syrians in these elections, which they know from 50 years of experience are merely an act, with no real changes or potential thereof," said Moussa.

The faux vote does not bode well with the future of last year's stalled constitution talks between members of the opposition, regime, and civil society, which UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, dubbed as a "failure".

It again highlights the regime's complete resistance to conceding any power or continue talks that might shrink Assad's absolute authority.

"Holding these elections is yet another proof that the regime is not serious about engaging in the political process, let alone reaching a political solution that would lead to real change and transition," said Moussa.

"The regime is interested in maintaining those who will continue its policies and practices, including sustaining the corruption system that has enabled it to survive this long at the expense of the country's well-being and Syrians' livelihood. This includes promoting and pushing forward those who will enable this and replacing any who could potentially be problematic."

Russia has not been enthusiastic about the election, chiming with recent Russian media criticism of Assad and hinting that Moscow could be losing patience with the regime.

"Our sense is that Moscow would probably be displeased with these elections considering its role as one of the guarantors in the Astana track and the work therein that led to the formation and launching of the constitutional committee within the efforts to implement UNSC Resolution 2254, which talks about a new constitution and elections based on the new constitution," said Moussa.

"Thus, these elections will not mark a new chapter, in that they will just make the minimal changes necessary for the regime to continue its policies and practices. It will prolong its existence with complete disregard for what is actually necessary to move forward in the political process or improving the lives of Syrians."

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin