Syria and the New Constitution: The End of Reform?

A picture shows a house hit by a shell which activists say was fired by Syrian regime forces in Idlib in northwestern Syria on 22 February 2012. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

By: Salameh Kaileh

Published Thursday, February 23, 2012

Once revolution breaks out, it’s too late for reform. The revolution would never have begun if there had been the possibility of reform. People don’t revolt if reforms can solve their problems. Revolutions occur when there is no prospect for reforms and the entire economic and political order needs changing.

That is to state the obvious. Considering the revolution which began in Syria on March 15, and the reforms the regime has come up with since early April, it is equally obvious that they have come too late.

Syrians have been hearing about reform for two decades.

In 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wave of democratization that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union alarmed the regime in Damascus. It feared for the survival of the ossified political system and the crisis-ridden economy.

This led to talk that democracy would be introduced “within a year.” But the promise was retracted after the Islamists won elections in Algeria, and the Soviet Union disintegrated.

So the Syrian political opposition, and the people, have been awaiting reform since 1990.

What they got, in 1991, was “economic reform,” enshrined in Law 10/1991, which paved the way for the liberalization of the economy. That is when the living standards of growing numbers of workers and wage earners began to deteriorate and economic policy began to favor the private sector.

Subsequently, the young Syrians currently demonstrating in the streets, along with the political opposition, looked to President Bashar Assad to introduce reforms. They waited for him to deliver on the promises he made in this regard after he assumed power in 2000.

But all he ended up doing was deepening the “economic reform” that was to be the root cause of the outbreak of the uprising. Economic liberalism triumphed. The private sector assumed control of 70 percent of the economy. We saw extreme concentrations of wealth develop, along with extreme impoverishment.

Thus by the time the revolution began, the time for reform had certainly passed.

The “reform” steps the regime has taken since then have been designed purely for media consumption, and as a distraction from the ferocity of the violence, killing, and destruction underway all over Syria.

The new constitution falls into that category. It is not a newly-drafted constitution at all, but an amended version of the old one.

It acknowledges realities that have become established over the past decade – whether in the economy or in terms of “political freedom” – but does not alter the basic structure of the regime. It thus perpetuates all the problems that led to the revolution.

The constitution is the latest in a series of cosmetic reform measures put forward by the regime, including the lifting of the state of emergency, and the introduction of new laws on the media and political parties.

All these “reforms” ensure that the president remains in a position of absolute power. They could be likened to Hosni Mubarak’s “reforms” in Egypt in mid-1980s – despite the difference in time and place, and the very different circumstances – except that the latter were more far-reaching.

The new Iegislation on media and political parties leaves both subject to regulation by the executive authority (though the government itself represents a political party). Likewise, the draft constitution ties all powers to the executive authority – at whose pinnacle is the president.

The first proposed change in the constitution concerns “Economic Principles.” These put the era of “socialism” behind us, and brings the constitution in line with the realities that have been created over the past two decades, paving the way for more of the same kind of liberalization.

The economy was hardly “socialist” before. It was more a form of state capitalism based on private ownership. But the state did play a role in the economy which bolstered investment in productive sectors and employment.

The new constitution upholds the new economic status quo created by a group that plundered the country’s wealth. This group was able to do so because of the highly centralized political system that pivots around the president.

The new constitution still describes the political system as republican, with sovereignty vested in the people. They are to exercise it in the manner specified in Article 2: by electing a president and a People’s Assembly.

There is no change in the role accorded to the assembly, the legislative authority, or the president, who, on behalf of the people and in cooperation with the council of ministers, wields executive authority (Article 83).

The “separation of powers” here between legislature and executive is purely formal. While the People’s Assembly is granted legislative authority, the constitution goes on to restrict that to specific functions such as “enacting legislation, discussing the government’s program, approving the state budget, approving development plans...” (Article 75).

Members of the Assembly are also entitled to “propose legislation and direct questions or interpolations at the government or individual ministers” (Article 74). It is significant, in this regard, that the government is accountable to the legislature for implementing its program (Article 76.2), even though executive power is actually wielded by the president.

The president will remain unaccountable, though it is he who will continue to choose the prime minister (Article 97), formulate overall state policies in conjunction with the council of ministers, and supervise their implementation (Article 98). Yet the legislature can only hold the head of state to account in the case of high treason (Article 117).

As for the judicial authority, guaranteeing its independence is one of the functions of the president, assisted by the Supreme Judicial Council (Article 132). The latter provides the necessary oversight to ensure the independence of the judiciary (Article 133.32).

The judiciary cannot be both independent and subject to the president. The constitution describes the Supreme Court as an “independent judicial body” (Article 140). But its members are named by the president (Article 141).

Its job includes judging whether laws and decrees are constitutional, supervising presidential elections, ruling on any claims of irregularities, and providing legal opinions when requested by the president (Article 146).

Thus, a body appointed by the president decides whether laws passed by parliament are valid, and how the same president is elected. In other words, the president is the arbiter of both parliamentary legislation and his own re-election.

The constitution provides for “political pluralism” in Syria (Article 8). But the political parties law vests the power to approve requests to form new parties in a committee whose members are mostly (four out of five) chosen by the president and the minister of the interior.

So no party can operate without the approval of the executive, as opposed to an independent judicial authority. The status of “popular organizations and professional unions and associations” meanwhile remains unchanged. They too remain subject to the executive authority (which in a multi-party system would mean the governing party).

This all puts into perspective the much-trumpeted removal of Article 8 of the old constitution, which enshrined the Baath Party as “leader of state and society.” The Baath Party in Syria is no more than a facade for absolute presidential power.

What has been achieved here is merely the removal of that facade, which had crumbled after two decades of economic liberalism. The structure of the regime remains as it was: absolute presidential power, with pro forma separation of legislative and judicial authorities, that are also ultimately subject to the president of the republic.

The regime’s reforms are so superficial they seem almost comical when set against the revolution raging in the country. But they make clear that the regime feels incapable of surrendering any of the absolute power it wields at present, and that the people should expect no more than word games.

This is the culmination of the reform process that was launched in early April 2011. It is laughable. It vindicates the basic political instincts of the mass of ordinary people. They only took to the streets after they felt certain that this regime cannot be reformed, and so it must be removed.

Salama Kayla is Syria-based Arab writer.

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

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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