Amid controversy, Syrians go to the polls in April

Beirut: Amid a storm of political controversy, Syrian parliamentary elections have been set for Wednesday, April 13. The election decree, signed this week by President Bashar Al Assad, came hours after the United States and Russia agreed on a “cessation of hostilities” in the Syrian battlefield that came into effect on Saturday.

The upcoming parliamentary elections were on the bargaining table in Geneva earlier this month, with some stakeholders in the Syria war asking that the vote be postponed until after a political agreement is reached between Damascus and the Riyadh-backed Syrian opposition. The suggestion was to first reach a cabinet of national unity, giving 10 out of 30 seats to the Syrian opposition, and for the new government to amend the current constitution and then supervise parliamentary elections and early presidential ones in the summer of 2017. The idea was for them to be internationally monitored and open to all Syrian politicians — even those backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

By going ahead with the parliamentary elections — regardless of the outcome in Geneva — Damascus and Moscow are making a point that they have no intention of sharing power in Syria with either Riyadh or Ankara. The United States — eager to see a ceasefire hold in Syria — has been silent about the upcoming parliamentary elections, raising doubts in opposition circles that it has fully surrendered to Moscow when it comes to Syrian domestic affairs.

None of the foreign-based Syrian opposition figures will run in the upcoming elections. Most of them are “wanted” by Syrian courts on charges of conspiracy and terrorism. If they set foot in Damascus before a deal is reached, they would get automatically arrested. Additionally, even Moscow-backed figures like ex-deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil and Haitham Manaa of the Syrian Democratic Council have shown no indication that they plan to be part of the upcoming elections — at least for now, and nor has the National Coordination Committee of the ageing Nasserist politician Hassan Abdul Azeem. That can change, however, if a regional deal is reached, as parliamentary hopefuls can still submit their candidacy until March 1.

Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he had agreed with his Syrian counterpart that these elections would take place with the “healthy opposition” and that they would be free and democratic. Government-licensed political parties — dismissed as “regime-created” by the Syrian political class — have expressed willingness to take part in the elections. All of them are regime-friendly, however, and have no more than a handful of members each, making them all politically insignificant.

Since the early 1970s, the lion’s share of parliamentary seats has gone to the National Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of leftist and socialist parties commanded by the Baath Party. Their pre-set quota of seats of two-thirds was guaranteed by the constitution of 1973, which was amended in 2012 but, given that they still exert tremendous control over the government, the NPF still managed to win 168 out of 250 seats (134 of which went to the ruling Baath).

The Socialist Unionists, for example, got 18 seats while the two branches of the Syrian Communist Party got 11. A proposal is currently on the table to disband the National Progressive Front and replace it with a new parliamentary coalition, still headed by the Baath, but with younger members and newer political parties. A pre-set quota for farmers and workers — the backbone of the socialist state — will remain in-place. Before 2011, a colourful variety of Syrian celebrities stood as parliamentary candidates — which is likely to be repeated in 2016. This applied to novelists, actors, athletes, and singers — notably Sabah Fakhri, a tenor from Aleppo.

During the last elections of 2012, there were 14.8 million eligible voters in Syria. That number has dropped significantly — as hundreds of thousands have been killed in the battlefield and approximately 5 million have fled the war-torn country, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries or Europe. Additionally nearly 9 million have become internally displaced — fleeing their homes to safer cities like Homs, Hama, Latakia, and Damascus.

A law is currently being drafted to allow these citizens to vote from their new places of residence — if they are still living in Syria. Meaning, a resident of Daesh-held Raqqa on the Euphrates River or Palmyra can now vote in Damascus (since Raqqa and Palmyra are completely out of government control). The same applies to the natives of Idlib and Jisr Al Shughour, two cities now fully in the hands of Jabhat Al Nusra, the Al Qaida branch in Syria.

Another change is currently in the works, allowing soldiers enlisted in the Syrian Arab Army to vote — a precedent in the history of the country.

In 2012, 7,000 candidates ran for office throughout Syria, at a time when despite heavy violence, all major cities and towns were still fully in the hands of the Syrian government. Of that number, 710 were women representing 12 political parties. Voter turnout was 51 per cent. Major cities like Aleppo got 20 seats in parliament while the countryside (now in the hands of Turkish-backed rebels) received 32 seats.

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