Syria’s New Parliament: From Baath to Baath

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A portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad seen over a ballot box during recent elections in Damascus. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Anas Zarzar, Tareq Abd al-Wahed

Published Wednesday, May 16, 2012

New parties in Syria cry foul after making no inroads in the first legislative polls under the new constitution and election law.

Damascus - Syrians had other things to worry about during their eight-day wait for the final results of the first parliamentary elections held under the country’s new multi-party constitution and election law.

Not least of these were last week’s bloody terrorist bombings in the Qazzaz district of Damascus, which dominated the news bulletins -- and the conversations of Syrians everywhere -- for days.

The results were delayed by re-votes which were ordered in a number of districts, after the Higher Committee for Elections (HCE) addressed complaints of irregularities lodged by some independent candidates and several of the newly-formed political parties that were created after the new election law was introduced in August last year.

HCE Chairman Judge Khalaf al-Azzawi held a press conference Tuesday to announce the final outcome. But while he gave an overall turnout figure of 51 percent of the total electorate and listed the names of the winning candidates, he gave no breakdown of how many votes the various political parties won.

The omission puzzled even members of the official media. “This information always used to be announced and provided to the media in a clear and detailed manner,” said Adnan Abdul-Razzaq, an editor at the daily newspaper al-Baath.

Abdul-Razzaq said, however, it was “only natural and to be expected” for the Baath party and its allies to gain a landslide win, given the party’s broad popular base and membership of over two million, including at least 1.5 million eligible voters.

The landslide victory for the ruling party and the parties and independent MPs aligned to it signals little change in the parliamentary set-up Syrians have known for decades. None of the newly-established parties managed to win a seat.

Some of these parties, apparently anticipating such an outcome, withdrew from the elections, while others took part regardless. For both groups, however, the exercise seems to have fallen below their expectations, or at least their hopes.

“The elections were a way of participating in multi-party politics and in the reforms that have been introduced in the country, but there was fraud in many provinces and regions, especially al-Hasaka. We have evidence and proof of that,” said Parwin Ibrahim, head of the National Youth Party for Justice and Development. She urged President Bashar Assad to act to remedy the situation.

Her criticisms were echoed by Maher Merhej, an engineer who leads the Syrian National Youth party. “The elections were not clean, but marred by many irregularities, from forgery to the registration of imaginary names,” he said.

“All of these violations happened in front of the ballot box supervisors, and they committed them in favor of independent candidates,” he charged. “Political money was spent, this time on the supervisors.” Merhej said his party presented the constitutional court with documented evidence that this had been done.

Merhej said his party does not accept the official election results, and accordingly would not consider the incoming People’s Assembly as the representative of the Syrian people. He said the MPs who had been elected by fraudulent means were “representatives of some commercial interests and people who exploited the crisis, and emerged raising meaningless slogans.”

Merhej acknowledged that his party had had little time to prepare for the elections, and could not have expected them to be deferred “given that there are people who cast doubt on the reforms.” But he added that “we had not been counting on the time factor, but the transparency factor.”

He called for fresh elections to be held as soon as possible under new rules, a system of proportional representation that would treat the entire country as a single constituency, and with quotas allocated for political parties, women and youth . “That way every sector of society could participate,” he said.

Merhej said the outcome of the latest elections would be seen by Syrians as evidence that “the talk of reform has been proven void of content.” He said the authorities were “ignoring the fact that 40 percent of the people deliberately boycotted the elections and another 40 percent failed to participate, so the vote was confined to 20 percent. The first two groups have been let down and have lost confidence in reform.”

Ammar al-Rifai, deputy head of the al-Ansar party, another newly formed group, said that the party withdrew from the elections in protest against the built-in advantages enjoyed by the Baath party, which he said contravened the new election law.

“The Baath party exploited the regime’s facilities and the state’s resources in the electoral process. This creates inequality of opportunity for any party that is not in power. We would be willing to lose to the Baath’s popularity, but not to illegality,” he said.

Rifai said the elections showed that the Baath party was continuing to operate in the manner it had traditionally done, despite no longer being the constitutionally-mandated ruling party.

He argued that the elections should have been postponed in light of the security situation. He faulted the drafters of the new constitution, which stipulated that parliamentary elections had to be held within 90 days of its adoption.

“The new parliament will have nothing to offer, at a time when there is an urgent duty to end the crisis the country is living through,” he said.

Majd Niyazi, who leads the Syria Homeland party, said newly-formed parties should have been allocated a quota of parliamentary seats to offset the decades-old dominance of the Baath and its allies. “That would happen if the higher authorities genuinely want to establish a participatory basis for the country’s new political life,” she said. “But the result is that the new parliament is not much changed from the last one, with decrepit parties allied to the Baath,” plus a handful of new members who had suddenly emerged despite having no record of political or social activity.

Niyazi said she would focus her energy on building up her party, promoting its ideas, and trying to influence government policy. She did not rule out the party taking part in a new government if invited, saying it had a number of policies and priorities to propose to any administration.

For opposition writer Fares Jamous, arguments about the conduct, legality or outcome of the elections are something of an irrelevance.

“Parliamentary elections at present are a secondary issue, and not of the least importance in addressing the basis and essence of the crisis we are in today,” he said. The regime “has reverted to the practices and ploys it used to employ in the past. Even if the outward appearance may seem different, the end result is one and the same.”

Jamous stands by his oft-repeated call for all sections of the opposition to get around the negotiating table with the regime. “That is the only way to extricate the country from the huge crisis it is stuck in,” he said. “I think that may be more important and pressing than parliamentary elections.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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