BEIRUT // It was with tired exasperation that Abu Mohammad, a Syrian exile living in Beirut, greeted the news that Syria’s widely anticipated presidential vote would take place on June 3.
“Everywhere the media is referring to it as an ‘election’, they shouldn’t use the word, it’s not an election, it’s a coronation,” said the 35-year-old, who fled Damascus earlier this year. “It’s another reminder that the regime has won the public relations battle — the media uses its words”.
Syria’s parliament announced the date for the vote on Monday.
Already, observers consider it a piece of theatre designed to make it look as though Syria has a division of power between executive and legislature, independent institutions of state, and a leader who is answerable to his people.
It has none of those things.
President Bashar Al Assad, 48, who has ruled for 14 years without ever facing a contested vote, just as his father ruled for decades before him, willingly burnt his country to the ground to maintain power when his people dared question him.
Syrian legislators were told, “go home, we’ll call your mothers if we want to speak to you” when, in 2011 after the uprising began, some MPs sought a serious debate about political reform.
Syria is run by a corrupt network of mafia-like family connections and fearsome, unaccountable security agencies. Parliament, government, and these latest elections are all part of the same hollow front.
For Syrians who have fled the fighting the most remarkable thing about the announcement is that, four years into an uprising that has killed 150,000 people, the regime is still in a position to go on with its theatre of the absurd.
“We thought Assad would have gone by now, first we thought it would take a few months, then a year, then we said OK, some deal has been done by the Americans and Russians to let him stay until 2014. Now we realise he actually plans to stay president until he dies, as his father did,” said Abu Mohammad.
Rather than return to his shattered country, Abu Mohammad, a university graduate from an influential family, is planning to move to the West, seeing no future and no hope in the land of his birth.
The ridiculousness of suggesting it is possible to hold a vote in Syria now, let alone one pretending to be free and fair, was underscored as parliament met in Damascus on Monday to set the date.
Mortar bombs, fired by rebels, exploded near the ministry of health in Hamra Street — a major shopping thoroughfare — while hundreds of security men were deployed in the vicinity of the parliament building, to stop dissenters getting close.
How the regime can hope to secure polling centres nationwide is clear: It has no intention of even trying to.
Vast areas of the country are outside of regime control, a third of the population is displaced and that insecurity prevents the distribution of essentials like food, water and polio vaccines, let alone ballot boxes and voting cards; all of this is of no relevance to a regime intent only on self-preservation.
The next piece of theatre is easy enough to foresee.
Sometime before May 1, Mr Al Assad will humbly announce that, in response to popular demand, he is willing to consider remaining in place for another seven years.
And then on June 3 he will win the ‘election’.
No doubt, he also expects to win the one after that, seven years further down the line.