Syria to elect parliament in July after Assad makes changes in ruling Baath party

President allows new faces to emerge in party leadership as his government struggles to revive war-hit economy

Syrian  President Bashar Al Assad at a Baath party central committee meeting in Damascus this month. AFP
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Syria will hold its next parliamentary election in mid-July, state media reported, after President Bashar Al Assad made changes to the ruling Baath party command amid a deterioration in the economy and a civil war in its second decade.

The 250-member People's Assembly, which serves four-year terms, is a rubber-stamp legislature that has been controlled by the Baath party since it came to power in a 1963 coup.

Since the civil war began in 2011, the election has been seen as a barometer of influence among the ruling elite. These include new players in the war economy and militias that now underpin the system, together with the security apparatus that is dominated by members of the Alawite minority to which Mr Al Assad belongs.

The official news agency, Sana, on Saturday reported the President had signed a decree setting July 15 as the date for the election.

The authorities have kept in place decades-long regulations that de facto allocate two thirds of the seats to the Baath party and the National Progressive Front, a largely moribund constellation of loyalist political groups headed by the Baath.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a veteran Syrian political commentator, said that the election this year was set up to bring in a new "flavour" to revitalise the Baath party.

Mr Abdel Nour said Mr Al Assad had signalled to the security agencies not to interfere in the party's internal election that resulted in new faces in its leadership this month, although the President retained the post of secretary general.

"He wanted to find out the currents within his base and the best way to do that was to let them compete," said Mr Abdel Nour, who worked with Mr Al Assad when he succeeded his father in the 2000 and now lives in exile in the US.

The new party leadership, of whom only nine out of 120 count politically, are now mostly in their 50s, considerably younger than their predecessors, he said. Among them is Ziad Ghuson, a loyalist journalist with a record of criticising the government's economic policies.

Mr Abdel Nour said the Baathists are now also expecting more leeway in running for the parliamentary seats reserved for them and their allies, which could entice more people to stand.

There are about 1.5 million Baath party members in Syria, out of about 20 million people in the country. Two thirds live in areas held by the Damascus government while the rest live in eastern areas under the control of Kurdish militias supported by the US, in the north under Sunni Arab militias supported by Turkey, and in the north-west, under an offshoot of the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has channels with Ankara.

But regime control has not mitigated adverse economic conditions. The Syrian pound is trading at 14,700 to the dollar, compared to 50 pounds to the dollar in February 2011, the month before pro-democracy protests escalated into a civil war.

The turnout in the previous parliamentary election in July 2020 was 37 per cent, down from 57 per cent in 2016, according to government figures.

In the 2020 election, the Baath party primaries "were marked by limited participation, accusations of corruption and widespread objections", according to a report by the European University Institute in Florence.

This was because more military and paramilitary figures entered the assembly, as well as more businessmen, it said.

It said that "power outside the traditional [Baath] party structure" included figures supported by the President's wife, Asma Al Assad.

Updated: May 12, 2024, 2:54 PM