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Defiant Assad Announces Presidential Elections in Syria
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) meets with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. (Russian Presidency)

Defiant Assad Announces Presidential Elections in Syria

The Syrian president is not expected to face any serious challengers in what analysts say is a sham election

Even as the fighting continues in Syria’s long-running civil war and the country remains deeply fragmented, a defiant Syrian President Bashar Assad announced that Syria will hold presidential elections next month.

It will be the country’s second presidential election to be held during the deadly decade-long civil war. The vote is scheduled for May 26.

Parliament Speaker Hammouda Sabbagh said in a statement on Sunday that Syrians living abroad will be “able to vote at embassies” on May 20.

Assad is not expected to face any serious challengers.

Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told The Media Line that it is not unusual for an Arab country with a republic form of government, but led by a defacto dictator, to hold elections.

“It’s typical of the behavior of authoritarian and dictatorial leaders of republics,” he said.

A republic is supposed to be a democratic form of government, but in Syria this is in name only since there is no real democratic process. Thus, elections will be held, even though they are fraudulent.

He is in control, and that is completely independent of any elections. These are not real elections, so the outcome is not in any doubt

Ibish said that the election will be held despite international dismissiveness, and opposition objection.

“Virtually all regimes need some narrative of legitimation beyond raw power,” he added, “but of course, it is a sham. The idea is to give the regime’s representatives, supporters and foreign allies the ability to claim that the government has some legitimacy beyond brute force. And, indeed, Assad has a very strong constituency in Syria, although almost certainly a minority one.”

Ibish says that these elections won’t “change anything one way or the other.” He says Assad has a tight grip on the country, with Syrians who support him or oppose him, or are ambivalent.

“He is in control, and that is completely independent of any elections. These are not real elections, so the outcome is not in any doubt. And it will not add any internal legitimacy to his claims on government,” Ibish said.

Syria researcher Aron Lund, at FOI – the Swedish Defence Research Agency, told The Media Line that it is “typical of authoritarian governments across the world to hold elections, and it’s not something unique to Syria.”

Lund says that the Syrian government wants to project the image of a stable and functional state, operating in a business-as-usual manner, and to show that it is capable of conducting elections.

“The Syrian constitution mandates regular elections, and the government is careful to maintain an appearance of constitutional rule. It has always sought to hold elections on schedule, including for parliament, president and local assemblies,” Lund said.

The US and EU described Syria’s 2014 election, which Assad won with nearly 90% of the vote, as undemocratic and illegitimate. The opposition called it a fraud.

“The point is not to satisfy the opposition or the international community, it is to tick a box in the constitution and show that Assad’s regime remains in control and can still impose its own brand of politics on Syria,” according to Lund.

Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher and non-resident fellow at Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, based in Washington, D.C., told The Media Line that holding elections is important for Damascus and its backer, Moscow, as it shows that the country is moving forward. “The election is a policy by the regime and Russia to show that Syria is progressing and becoming a normal country. It’s a way to say Syrians support Assad and Syria is still there,” he said.

Ghazi also says that Assad and Russia want to show that the state “doesn’t care about political solution or transition.”

He says holding national elections is for public consumption.

“Internally, the regime uses this election to tell people that Syria is fine and to push the propaganda into the people, especially the young generation,” he added.

The country’s bloody civil war has crippled the Syrian economy, made worse by a series of Western sanctions. Meanwhile, 6 million people have been internally displaced, and 5 million more have fled the country.

For many Syrians and pundits alike, the outcome is a forgone conclusion — Assad is undoubtedly expected to stay in power and easily win another seven-year term.

“This is not an election, it’s a sham. It’s an attempt by the Syrian regime to legitimize itself, reintroduce itself,” Ahmad al-Zain told The Media Line by telephone from a refugee camp for internally displaced persons in northern Syria near Aleppo.

Zain, 47, a father of five from Damascus Countryside, wondered how elections can be held in Syria today. “The country is divided and not everyone will get a chance to run or vote. I live in a tent with my family and will not get a chance to vote,” he said.

“Where is the democracy here?” he added.

Lund says that the elections would “not be free nor fair,” but that, to the Syrian government, securing a relatively large turnout is a win and allows it to claim that “Assad’s rule has public support.”

This is not an election, it’s a sham. It’s an attempt by the Syrian regime to legitimize itself, reintroduce itself

“No one thinks Syria is a democracy. If the government can ensure reasonably broad participation – especially in areas outside government control and at embassies abroad – it will demonstrate that Assad is capable of mobilizing and directing many Syrians,” he said.

Despite the ongoing fighting, and the lack of complete control by the government of the whole country, it is important that elections take place to convince both Syrians and the world that life there is back to normal.

“If army and police forces can prevent attacks or disturbances during the electoral process, the government will also have demonstrated that its security control remains effective,” Lund said.

And regardless of how Syrians genuinely feel about Assad, many will go out to vote.

“Many Syrians will simply show up because they’re expected to do so, regardless of what they think about his [Assad’s] rule. It’s an authoritarian system and when the government asks for a show of support, most people will give in and then go on with their lives. That’s how these things work. You’re not asked for your opinion; you’re told to be present,” Lund said.

Assad became president after the death of his father, Hafez, more than 20 years ago. Like his father before him, Assad rules with an iron fist that has helped safeguard his control of the government.

With the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, a civil war broke out inside of Syria that threatened Assad’s rule, and sent the country into chaos. Since 2015, with the backing of Russian forces, the Syrian army slowly but surely has been able to reassert control over 70% of Syrian territory.

Assad has not yet officially announced that he will run for reelection.

Under Syria’s 2012 constitution, a president may only serve two seven-year terms – with the exception of the president elected in the 2014 poll.

Candidates must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, which means that opposition figures living in exile are excluded from taking part in next month’s elections. Candidates must also have the support of at least 35 members of the parliament, which is dominated by Assad’s Baath party.

The decade-long civil war in Syria has left about 400,000 people dead, and half of the population displaced.


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