Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 24 October 2020

Syria's parliamentary election was meant to project normality but it was a sham

A Syrian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the Nubl neighbourhood of Aleppo on July 19. AFP
A Syrian woman casts her ballot at a polling station in the Nubl neighbourhood of Aleppo on July 19. AFP

The pictures look so prosaic that you would be forgiven for thinking it was a normal country. They show Syria’s ruler, Bashar Al Assad and his wife Asma, wearing face masks, casting their ballots in parliamentary elections that took place on Sunday. On Tuesday, in a result that shocked nobody, the Baath party was declared the victor.

The elections in Syria for the country’s rubber stamp parliament took place against a backdrop of heightened despair. The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating, threatening the lives and livelihoods of a society already ravaged by nearly 10 years of war.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his wife Asma at a polling station in Damascus on July 19. AFP / Syrian Presidency Facebook page
Bashar Al Assad and his wife Asma at a polling station in Damascus on July 19. AFP / Syrian Presidency Facebook page

There are now more than 500 cases in the country, a sharp increase from a few weeks ago, including cases in Idlib, where conditions in refugee camps are ripe for an outbreak. Poverty and unemployment are rampant, and the collapse of the currency and economy in neighbouring Lebanon has had a knock-on effect on the country, hastening a protracted economic breakdown.

The recent Caesar Act, a raft of American sanctions, has ensured that no reconstruction funds are likely to flow into the economy without a political solution to the crisis, which itself is unlikely. The sanctions have yet to force the regime into any concessions, but have led to extended misery for Syrians.

And though Mr Al Assad has won the war thanks to the continuous backing of Russia and Iran, parts of the country are still outside the control of loyalist forces, and the interminable suffering of the population means there is always the risk of renewed protests.

Nevertheless, elections were held, and a leader – who presided over the dismantling of the country, the displacement of half the population, and the death of over half a million civilians because they dared challenge his rule – played his part in the charade.

The elections were supposed to act as a symbolic concession to the international community, part of a series of steps involving surface-level reforms that could have started the process of bringing Syria back into the international fold, which would eventually allow its backers to argue that the time was right to begin reconstruction and the rehabilitation of Mr Al Assad and his regime. It will not have any effect in the short term on a potential rapprochement with the regime now that the Caesar sanctions are in place and are meant to bring top regime officials to justice for wartime atrocities and to squeeze Mr Al Assad’s Iranian allies.

The elections are also an important marker of authority for Mr Al Assad, which is why they were held throughout government-controlled areas, including recently captured territory in the province of Idlib near the Turkish border. Holding the elections was a message that Syria’s president is in control and sovereign, projecting an image of normality, even though nothing is normal. His control over the country is tenuous and his international backers are the reason he remains in power.

The parliament itself of course has little in the way of real power on the ground to enact reforms or make any real difference to the lives of ordinary Syrians. Nobody can run without permission from the regime, a process that precludes the possibility of opposition members making it into the legislature.

Nevertheless, the final results will be indicative of the changing power dynamics in the country as it emerges from active warfare. Like in the previous elections, in 2016 rehabilitated militia leaders, who were unknown to the public prior to the outbreak of the revolution and civil war, are running and winning seats.

These warlords are replacing the traditional elite and communal notables that entrenched the power base of the Baath party in the past, and are reaping the rewards of their loyalty to the regime and their connections to its allies.

Neighbouring Lebanon has not had the best experience with former warlords who have blood on their hands, going on to form the core of the country’s legislature.

Finally, the new Parliament will probably preside over the ratification of Syria’s new constitution

once the ponderous UN-backed talks and negotiations over the charter are completed at some point in the future. They will also preside over Mr Al Assad’s likely election next year as president.

The parliamentary elections are nothing but a sham meant to project confidence, authority and normality. But Syria is anything but normal. It is shattered by atrocities and war crimes, all because ordinary Syrians demanded dignity and called for reform. It is hard to say whether Mr Al Assad is simply going through the motions or whether he genuinely believes his own deception. I'm not sure which is worse.

Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada

Updated: July 22, 2020 09:40 PM

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