Syria's Assad presents himself as national saviour as analysts question polls

The Syrian president's portraits line roads in Damascus and outnumber those of his two challengers

President Bashar Al Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for over half a century, faces an election Wednesday meant to cement his image as the only hope for recovery in the war-battered country, analysts say.

His campaign slogan, Hope through Work, evokes the reconstruction of a country ravaged by a decade-long conflict that has claimed more than 388,000 lives and displaced half of Syria's pre-war population.

In the capital Damascus, Mr Al Assad's portrait lines roads and inundates main squares, outnumbering those of his two little-known challengers.

"Syrians will vote to pledge allegiance to Mr Al Assad and to the system," said analyst Fabrice Balanche.

By holding elections on a regular basis, Mr Al Assad is attempting to prove "that Syrian institutions are functioning," he said.

The poll, the second since the civil war started in 2011, is all but certain to deliver a fourth term for a president already in power for 21 years.

Western countries opposed to Mr Al Assad say the vote is a sham and neither free nor fair – in part because it will be held exclusively in the two thirds of the country under regime control.

Bashar's election campaign emphasises his role as the man who won a war (and) has big ideas for Syria's reconstruction, Nicholas Heras, the Newlines Institute in Washington.

Mr Al Assad, a 55-year-old ophthalmologist by training, was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.

In the May 26 ballot, he will run against two other challengers approved by an Assad-appointed constitutional court, out of a total of 51 applicants.

Electoral law stipulates that candidates need to have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past decade, ruling out all exiled opposition figures.

The two other contenders are former state minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Merhi – a member of the so-called "tolerated opposition" long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.

'Only choice'

Mr Al Assad issued a general amnesty for thousands of prisoners earlier this month, on top of a series of decrees that aim to improve economic conditions.

He has not held campaign media events and interviews, but his team has released a widely shared promotional video ahead of the polls.

It opens with footage of explosions and people fleeing devastated neighbourhoods, but then shifts to portray scenes of hope: inside a classroom, a schoolteacher repairs a hole blown into the wall by artillery fire. A farmer tends to his land. A timber mill is back in service.

"Bashar's election campaign emphasises his role as the man who won a war and has big ideas for Syria's reconstruction," said Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute think tank in Washington.

It presents him as "the only person who can manage the resumption of order and reconstruction from the chaos of the Syrian conflict."

With more than 80 per cent of Syria's population living in poverty, according to the UN, the country today is a far cry from the vision Mr Al Assad projected when he was first propelled to the presidency.

According to Heras, Mr Al Assad's campaign targets international donors more than Syrian voters.

He is "running a long infomercial for potential foreign backers that he is their only choice for stability after Syria's war", Mr Heras said.

'Major setback'

Syria has lost its status as a regional heavyweight under Mr Al Assad's watch and is now widely seen as heavily dependent on Russia, Iran and an assortment of Tehran-backed militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.

It remains to be seen whether Western countries led by Washington will shift course on Damascus by lifting sanctions that have crippled Syria's economy.

But they are unlikely to make concessions without an internationally brokered peace settlement, which they accuse Mr Al Assad of sabotaging.

According to experts, the May 26 vote undermines a UN-sponsored committee set up in late 2019 to draft a new constitution for Syria ahead of elections.

Representatives from the regime, the opposition and civil society groups failed to clinch an agreement before the vote, derailing any progress.

According to Syria expert Samuel Ramani, the election "will be a major setback for the constitutional process".

"It will reaffirm to the international community, Russia and Iran included, just how difficult a settlement will be."

In a country fragmented by war, Syria's Kurds have carved out a de facto autonomous zone in the north-east, where voting will be extremely limited.

More than three million people live in Syria's rebel-held north-west, where the fighters say the election is illegitimate.

In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Mr Al Assad won with 88 per cent of the vote.

This time around, "Assad is running the risk of being the only certainty in a country in ruins," said a European diplomat following Syrian affairs.

But Mr Al Assad will have a lot to prove, more so to his closest allies than his foes, according to the diplomat.

"Without reform and without opening up the regime," he has few chances of success, the diplomat said.

Updated: May 24, 2021 02:31 PM

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