Asad’s Election Fever

The Syrian Government News Agency SANA has a nice line in occasional mistranslations. Last month it published a story which stated that the Syrian government had resolved “to stamp out tourism”. The rather apposite nature of this slip raises the question of whether it was accidental of the work of a saboteur with a cunning sense of humour.

The other day he or she seemed to be at it again: prominently on display in SANA’s scrolling headlines was one announcingCabinet approves establishment of ‘Syrian Space Agency’ but on inspection the story reported the creation of a “Syrian News Agency” (although that seemed odd since they obviously already have one of those). But it turns out that the error was in the story not the headline – the Syrian government really has decreed the creation of a Space Agency (perhaps a harbinger of Asad’s plans to escape the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court?)
However other news from Syria suggests that this is far from the most eccentric project that the regime has embarked on. The prize for that must go to its decision to hold elections this summer.

Yes, you heard right – having failed to convince anyone at Geneva II that the real problem facing Syria is universal “terrorism”, rather than Asad’s depredations on the Syrian people, the regime has started to cue up its plan B – a Presidential election to take place in the summer, with guess who as the front-running candidate.
This will be the first Presidential elections held under the constitutional amendments that Assad introduced in February 2012, in the days when he was thinking about  defusing the developing mass protests rather than drowning them in blood – so it is a new experience for all concerned. (Parliamentary elections took place under these arrangements in 2012.)

The Syrian regime frequently appears to have a tenuous grip on reality and just as often seems not to have read the texts it is supposed to be following. Thus, it turned up at Geneva II without apparently having read Geneva I, and were surprised to find out that they were expected to be negotiating the creation of a transitional government.

In this case one wonders if they have really read and digested their shiny, new Constitution – thus far untested as far as the Presidency is concerned. The 2012 amendments were drafted with some prescience, so they incorporate quite strict conditions for Presidential candidates:
A candidate must first be nominated by 35 members of the Assembly and meet a series of eligibility criteria. He (the possibility of a female candidate seems not to have been entertained) must be a Muslim, born in Syria, with both parents Syrian by birth, have been resident in the country for 10 consecutive years, not be married to a non-Syrian wife, and not have been convicted of a serious crime.: Clearly no one who has ever deigned to say boo to Asad and the Baath could have both remained in the country and out of prison for 10 years, so that rather conveniently renders the entire opposition ineligible.

However it does throw up a residual problem – how to find a suitable second candidate, as the Constitution, somewhat less presciently, insists that there must be more than one. Now there is no doubt about who the first will be, but how to find number two? Obviously it can’t be someone from the Baath party, which will be seeking to make this an orgy of national unity around the person of Asad; the real opposition is excluded; so that only leaves the regime’s “licensed opposition” (to use the term coined by SANA). But how can a loyal opposition figure stand against Asad and at the same time demonstrate their obligatory allegiance to the Great Leader? But someone is going to have to embark on this humiliating and potentially dangerous task: humiliating because they are going to have to spend most of the campaign urging voters to vote for their opponent; dangerous because any suggestion that they might constitute an alternative to Asad would spell at the very least the end of their careers, as Qadri Jamil, the most likely choice for this role, has already discovered. Perhaps the solution will be to get several “licensed” oppositionists to stand and thus parcel out the burden and risks; but that could be tricky, because the victorious candidate must receive over 50% of the vote, otherwise they have to do it all over again in a second round, and multiple candidates could lead to a fragmentation of the vote.

The Government’s plan is to hold these elections across the whole country, except for the Raqqa governorate (currently under ISIS control – so perhaps from the regime’s perspective already in reliable hands).

The biggest problem, of course, is that no one seems to have shown Asad a map of who controls Syria, which looks something like this:

Syria control 2Hint: only the red bits are under regime control.

As the map shows it is not only in Raqqa where the regime has lost control. If they are going to conduct polling in other areas they are going to need officials prepared to supervise voting under bombardment and to fast for several days in towns under siege. And will Airforce security and their brother agencies be able to guarantee the turnout and right result in the way they did in 2012?
There are some other potentially problematic areas for the regime in this process.

1. Is Asad actually going to campaign in the elections? This would be very unfamiliar territory. More likely he will just run on his glorious record of saving the country from terrorism – after all, without him large parts of the country would be destroyed, tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed, and millions driven from their homes. Oh – that is what happened with him: maybe time for an image makeover.

2. Refugees. According to one informed source on Twitter. “Asked an Assad ally about this a few weeks ago. He said even refugees could vote if Syrian government given oversight.” Now how will that work? Can Asad really count on the goodwill of people he has bombed out of their homes like this family –

Or will he have to visit the refugee camps to canvas for votes? Will he be able to persuade the Turkish government to allow his brother Maher and the 4th division to cross the border with him to ensure personal security?

3. The northeast. The regime has an accommodation with the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in much of this area which has allowed the Kurds to establish virtual autonomy. The Kurds are already very involved in elections, but for their own local and regional government bodies. It seems likely that they will be far too busy building their own institutions to bother with anything coming from Damascus. So Asad can’t count on much from this quarter – based as much on indifference as hostility.

4. The final big challenge for the regime will be deciding on a number: just how much of the “democratic” vote is Asad going to allocate himself. Anything less than the 98% he got last time will look like a loss of popularity; but more than the 54% the Baath achieved in the 2012 parliamentary elections might look a bit greedy. Perhaps split the difference? Asad can probably live with just 78% of the vote – but I really pity the poor sod who gets the other 22%!

No – I really don’t think they have thought this one through.


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