Syria’s Parliamentary Elections: The Specter of Division

Two men check the names of candidates before voting in parliamentary elections at a polling station in Damascus 7 May 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Khaled al- Hariri)

By: Karl Sharro

Published Monday, May 21, 2012

Syria’s parliamentary elections were intended as a means for President Bashar al-Assad to re-establish his credentials as a reformer in his battle to regain control over the country. The real outcome however represented a political loss for Assad’s regime. Not only did it further convince the supporters of the uprising in Syria they are being marginalized, the results alienated even some of those close to the regime.

The real significance of the widely ignored elections is that they offered a snapshot of the political stalemate gripping Syria and the sharp divisions that threaten a protracted crisis.

The elections were promoted as the first multiparty vote in Syria for decades. This came following the introduction of a new constitution which dropped the Baath party’s status as the ‘leader of the state and society’ and the adoption of a new election law. Yet, when the election results were announced last Tuesday, the only thing that officials could present as evidence of the success of the elections was the far from impressive turnout rate of 51%.

The manner of the announcement itself was peculiar as it did not include any information on the political affiliation of the winners, and thus came devoid of any political content.

Syrian state TV later announced that the Baath party had won 183 seats out of 250, giving it a staggering 73% share of the new parliament. Crucially, none of the new parties that were established in the lead up to the elections had managed to win a single seat.

For elections that were meant to bring in new voices into the parliament, that was nothing short of a serious failure. Furthermore, wealthy ‘independents’ were among the few that managed to make their way into the parliament, a pattern repeated from previous elections and that was a source of discontent with the corruption of the political system.

The result is an indication of how unwieldy the Baath party machine is and how zealous it is in trying to preserve its monopoly over power. In fact, had a few members of the new parties managed to make it into the parliament the overall result would have been more flattering to the regime. But even such a small concession now appears difficult to negotiate, indicating that the entrenched system of power in Syria remains resistant even to cosmetic reforms.

In practice the elections’ plan had began to unravel long before the actual voting, with figures from the officially-sanctioned opposition like Qadri Jamil, leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, openly questioning the transparency and integrity of the elections.

There were widespread allegations of fraud that were repeated after the results were announced, revealing that even those who subscribed to Assad’s reforms as the way out of the crisis were disenchanted.

The timing of the elections was also indicative of another important development in the way Assad’s regime regards the ongoing uprising and signifies a tacit acceptance of a de facto division of Syria.

This was initially outlined by Assad in a speech he gave last year, when he made a clear distinction between the legitimate demands of some protesters and ‘armed gangs’ funded by outside forces. As the violence escalated, that distinction acquired a geographic nature, with cities like Hama and Homs becoming the outlaw hinterland against the relative stability of the capital Damascus.

Thus holding the elections at a time when the security situation was far from stable, despite the presence of the UN observers required by the Kofi Annan peace plan, signaled that Assad’s regime was by now only interested in placating the areas in which he already has support.

Furthermore, it emphasized that he was not prepared to engage the hotspots of the uprising politically and was intent on pursuing the ‘security’ solution over there.

On Wednesday, Assad appeared in an interview with Russian TV and declared that the election result showed support for his reformers. Given the scale of public discontent with the process, it is clear that Assad regarded the elections as a way of bolstering his legitimacy and not as a serious path to reform. This indicates that he is under pressure to defend his leadership, but it also puts the spotlight on his regime’s inability to come up with a genuine political solution for the Syrian crisis.

In parallel, Assad’s own weakening position was being mirrored within the ranks of the Syrian National Council (SNC). The reelection of Burhan Ghalioun as the leader of the umbrella opposition group sparked furious wrangling and splinters within the body, culminating with Ghalioun handing in his resignation.

This brought to light the increasing sense of frustration with the SNC and its inability to lead the uprising. The SNC had in fact become synonymous with ineffectiveness as it proved itself entirely incapable of transforming the actions of the protesters into political gains.

This situation leaves Syria with a real vacuum in political leadership at a historic moment when it needs it most. Assad’s regime is incapable of seizing the initiative and carrying out meaningful reforms while the Syrian opposition remains divided and lacks a real vision to introduce change.

The reported 51% turnout rate in the elections is perhaps an apt metaphor for the divisions within Syria: half of the population appears to support the status quo for lack of any alternative, while the voice of the other half continues to be ignored.

Karl Sharro is a Middle East political commentator and blogger at Karl reMarks and on Twitter @KarlreMarks.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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