Why Syria’s sham presidential elections actually do matter

Bashar Al Assad's plan for a new vote risks derailing UN-backed constitutional talks in Geneva

epa09142832 A general view of members of the Syrian Parliament attending an extraordinary session in Damascus, Syria, 18 April 2021. Sabbagh announced on 18 April that Syria will hold its presidential election on 26 May, the second one to take place since the the civil war erupted in 2011. The door for nomination will be open for 10 days starting 19 April. Syrians abroad will vote on 20 May.  EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI
Powered by automated translation

Ten years on from the start of Syria's uprising-turned-civil war, the country's leader, Bashar Al Assad, has announced plans for presidential elections to be held on May 26. Previous votes during the Al Assad family's iron-fisted rule have been viewed widely to be a farce. The last election, in 2014, saw the President secure 92 per cent of the poll. There is no reason to suspect that this year's will be any different.
If anything, the country's fractured state will render them even less credible. Large pockets of territory remain outside of government control, and a decade of brutality that has resulted in a civilian death toll in the hundreds of thousands will deter any serious opposition candidates.
This year's election will instead primarily serve as a means to undermine any serious effort to secure a lasting, inclusive peace for all Syrians. Talks between the government and opposition factions to form a new constitution have been taking place intermittently in Geneva for years, admittedly with little progress. But they will be rendered entirely moot, as far as Damascus is concerned, when a new election touches up the facade of popular support for Mr Al Assad's status quo.

Our cartoonist's take on presidential elections in Syria
Our cartoonist's take on presidential elections in Syria
Success in Geneva can bring fair elections

The Geneva talks involve representatives from across Syria's various factions and civil society, with input from a number of foreign powers. These are the stakeholders with the power to settle the conflict. The progress of their negotiations is slow in part because their mandate precludes the luxury of cementing a result through an empty election. Instead, they are faced with many complex questions that need answering quickly if Syria is to get the reformed constitution it needs in order to restore trust in its public institutions. A framework for a sustainable political settlement will require sincerity and a great deal of effort, particularly in a splintered country where the ideologies and foreign backers of parties differ so profoundly.

Mr Al Assad's move will no doubt create a significant obstacle to further progress in these constitutional negotiations, as his government will likely seek to ignore, delay or cancel them altogether. The pressure, therefore, will be much greater on the international community to remind Damascus that what happens in Geneva still matters, and that elections based on reformed constitutional principles must be the ultimate mechanism through which Syria's government affirms its rule.
A defining aspect of the country's conflict is the complex role that a number of foreign powers have played. Pressure from them could hurry negotiating parties into actually making progress.
The correct order for securing peace is success in Geneva first, then a more transparent and internationally monitored vote. Ignoring this and repeating the faux elections of the past can result only in a prolongation of the conflict. There is little doubt at this stage of Syria's war that Mr Al Assad has beaten his opponents into submission, and secured for himself a role in Syria's politics for some time to come. But this does not give him a free pass to endanger his country any more than he already has.