Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 May 2012
Issue No. 1097
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Syrian elections boycott

The opposition boycotted the Syrian parliamentary elections this week, claiming that they were simply a repeat of already failed experiments at reform, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Despite the uprising that has taken place in Syria over the past 14 months against the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian government held parliamentary elections in the country this week as if conditions in the country were nothing other than normal.

In doing so, it ignored the calls for a boycott by the country's opposition, as well as the views of the majority of Syrians that the elections would fail in the light of the unstable security conditions in the country, the continuing deployment of the army in the country's towns and cities and the continued violence and killings.

President Al-Assad also ignored a request by the outgoing parliament to postpone the elections because of the situation in Syria, while the government claimed that the elections were proof that the country was stable and that they crowned reform efforts made by the regime.

Syrian state and semi-official media dedicated hours of air time to covering the elections, stressing that they came on the heels of a new law establishing a multiparty system in the country and a new constitution eliminating the "leading role" played by the country's ruling Baath Party.

Some 7,000 candidates contested 250 seats in parliament in the elections, though opposition commentators say that the results will not change the political and security scene in the country.

The elections are simply a hollow move on the part of the regime, such figures say, especially since opposition forces boycotted the elections while the regime continued its military crackdown against the popular uprising in the country that has thus far led to the deaths of some 14,000 people, most of them civilians.

The elections were originally slated for September 2011, but they were postponed "to allow time for the new parties to prepare."

While this was the official excuse for the postponement, the regime submitted electoral lists that included members of the Baath Party and its coalition partners in the National Progressive Front, supporting these even though the new constitution supposedly eliminates the Baath Party's hegemonic role over state and society.

The elections were hastily prepared for, without consultation among the opposition. Opposition forces inside and outside Syria declared a boycott of the elections, and revolutionary forces influential on the ground also called for a boycott.

Explaining the opposition position, Hassan Abdel-Azim, head of the opposition Coordination Committee of the Forces for Democratic Change (CCFDC), told Al-Ahram Weekly that his group "would never accept or recognise any elections unless the incumbent regime is gone."

The opposition forces "will never agree to any elections while violence, killing and bloodshed continue," he said.

The boycott by the CCFDC, which includes 14 opposition parties, groups from the left and centre, and independent figures, came about for two reasons, Abdel-Azim said.

"First, the Syrian people are convinced that democratic elections will never take place under this regime, which is only trying to re-invent itself through cosmetic measures. Second, the opposition will never accept elections while the violence, bloodshed, hurt and torture against the people continues."

"There are tens of thousands of detainees in the prisons, and it is impossible to talk about any political solution while the security crackdown continues. We cannot accept or recognise any elections until the regime has gone."

The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) that represents the opposition abroad also described the elections as "a charade" and "another piece of mockery to add to the other farcical acts by the regime".

The Maan (Together) Movement described the elections as "a desperate attempt to hide the truth about the Syrian people's revolution," adding that they had "no legal or moral basis and do not represent the people."

Christian and Kurdish opposition groups also boycotted the elections, saying that "political life in Syria is dead" and "political slogans and programmes under a despotic regime are pointless."

International reactions were similar, with western diplomats not seeing the elections as genuinely democratic or credible, largely because of the opposition boycott. Washington even described the elections as "ridiculous."

In the run-up to the elections, the ruling Baath Party, headed by al-Assad, drew up joint electoral lists with parties from the coalition front it has partnered with for decades, calling these the "national unity list" and not the "national front list," as was the case in the past.

The lists included regime supporters, and they won about 80 per cent of the seats in all the country's governorates, leaving fewer than 20 per cent of the seats for independents, many of them pro-regime.

Before the elections, Baath Party leaders had asserted that the Party would win the majority of the seats in parliament "because of its broad grassroots base," meaning that the next Syrian parliament is likely to have an even greater pro- regime majority than the previous one.

"The regime has changed the name of the lists, but it has not changed its approach," Abdel-Azim said. "It is continuing in its old ways of eliminating the role of the people, even though the Syrian people have decided they want to be free to choose their representatives."

Opposition activists said more than seven Syrian governorates had not participated in the voting because of security conditions and because the majority of voters there were against the regime.

There are some 14 million Syrians believed to be eligible to vote, and according to the country's opposition in the last elections four years ago no more than six per cent of those eligible to vote did so despite claims by the regime that 55 per cent of the electorate had voted.

According to the opposition, less than three per cent of voters cast their ballots this time round. "The Syrian regime transports the same people from one ballot box to the next without any oversight. The actual percentage of voters in this election was no more than two per cent, though because there was no supervision, judicial or by local and international groups, the regime will say that voter turnout was high," Abdel-Azim said.

Most candidates in the elections did not publish electoral programmes, the majority relying on pictures and a few vague phrases. Many Syrian voters mocked the candidates, presenting them as playthings in the hands of the regime and pasting photographs of prominent revolutionary martyrs in the streets as alternative candidates in the elections.

"There are no political platforms in this electoral campaign," Suleiman Youssef, a member of the opposition, told the Weekly. "This reflects the conviction of the candidates and the voters that political life in Syria is dead, and that there is no point in putting up political platforms under an authoritarian regime that only hears its own voice and sees its own image."

"What can Syrian voters expect from an MP who has no freedom and is ignoring the millions of Syrian who are demanding freedom, democracy and the overthrow of a despotic regime?"

Some opposition forces went further and declared that they would form their own alternative parliament as a precursor to creating a constitutional political umbrella to take charge of the crisis.

This shadow parliament would operate according to the country's 1950 constitution, the constitution of independence, and it would dissolve the Baath Party, annul all articles giving the president and prime minister their current mandate and hand this to the parliament and a provisional military council.

According to the opposition, the legislative elections will not lead to any change in the composition, role, or influence of the new parliament, and the latter will not be able to hold the government to account or participate with the regime in decision-making.

Instead, the new parliament's role, like that of those in the past, will be to applaud the government and its achievements and rubber stamp the president's decisions.

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