Syria’s Parliamentary Elections: The Good Old Baath

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People head into a voting station in Damascus, during the first parliamentary election under the new constitution, 7 May 2012. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Mohamed Nazzal, Tareq Abdel Hay

Published Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On Monday, Syria held its first election under the new constitution. Absent from the multi-party poll were the usual bread and butter issues. Instead, the elections were political par excellence, with the opposition sitting them out.

US president Barack Obama scoffed at the new constitution in Syria three months ago. And many others did the same.

The Syrian President Bashar Assad for his part scoffed at the scoffers. He pressed ahead with the new constitution, which meant the Baath Party, in theory, was no longer the “ruling party.”

Yesterday, Syria held its first parliamentary election under the new constitution. The Syrian people went to the polls as officials in Damascus turned a deaf ear to their critics abroad.

But who was competing with whom in yesterday’s elections in which 7,195 Syrians ran? Is there a party that can electorally compete with the Baath?

The country’s new parties law did in fact produce some new players in the political field. But do they have enough weight to compete against the Baath Party which has been ruling the country for 40 years?

No one today is expecting the new political parties or even independents to “invade” the parliament. The Baathist can rest easy as they are the masters of the political game in Damascus.

Al-Akhbar met Baathist candidate Fayez al-Sayegh, who is running on the National Unity List after he left a polling station yesterday in Bab Touma in Damascus. He pointed out proudly that his party has 2.8 million registered members.

“We do not want to see our list breached but if it happens, we will accept it because that will make us re-examine ourselves. We will have discussions with those who got more votes and defeated our candidate to see where they stand,” he said.

It is true the Baath is no longer the ruling party according to the new constitution, but every Baathist deep down practices politics with the conviction that he is “entrusted with the country.”

Al-Sayegh believes that Article 8 of the old constitution (which states that the Baath Party leads the state and society) “made the party lax because members weren’t worried about an electoral loss. Today however the party has to mobilize its efforts to meet the expectations of the people and public opinion.”

You cannot find an opposition supporter who is calling for deposing the regime inside polling stations. That part of the opposition called for a boycott of the election. Some of them even issued threats against those who run or vote.

Therefore, all those who went to polling stations yesterday are either regime loyalists or supporters of candidates like Qadri Jamil who is categorized as a member of the “soft” opposition.

Inside the polling station in Kfar Sousa neighborhood in the Miqdad al-Kindi School, Fidaa al-Khatib considers her participation in the electoral process an “existential challenge.” Everything that Fidaa, who is a teacher, says indicates that her motive for participating is “purely political.”

At the entrance of the polling station, an old woman was speaking with a Chinese journalist. She told him: “I voted because I am with the army. My son is a soldier, may God protect him and return him to me.”

Inside the station, Rita al-Haiby, the young woman who is taking part in an election for the first time, is making the rounds with all the journalists to get everything off her chest. For her, “the conspiracy has been defeated.”

Conspiracy is still one of the most frequently heard words in Syria. Al-Haiby is angry at the sectarian climate “that the opposition introduced...We love Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah for his positions, not because of his sect, and the same goes for President Bashar and his father before him who never shook the hand of the Israeli.”

Thus, the election in Syria yesterday was political par excellence. Bread and butter issues that are normally part of parliamentary elections were not brought up by voters.

Until yesterday afternoon, the electoral scene in Damascus and its countryside was characterized by contradictions.

At a time when ministries and governmental buildings were crowded with voters, candidates’ representatives, and official media outlets, some polling stations were rather quiet.

Inside, voters’ opinions varied between those who decided to vote for certain known candidates, those who were not convinced by any of the candidates in the first place, and those who were wondering about the new political parties.

The new political parties were not happy with the long election day that lasted from 7:00am till 10:00pm. While some parties decided to withdraw to protest the “unfair” elections or because of the alliances forged by the Baath Party, other parties decided to press ahead because they thought it a necessary step to open a new page in Syria’s political life.

Artist Majd Niazi who is the secretary general of Syria the Homeland party told Al-Akhbar that his party decided to withdraw from the parliamentary elections because it is “a new party facing a party with a long history like the Baath Party.”

She also cited the flow of what she called “political money [to influence voters] in the past few days as electoral alliances formed, especially those between traditional parties and the Baath, which was expected to put its house in order but that did not happen.”

Niazi said another reason that led to their withdrawal is “the security situation in the last few days,” adding that “all these reasons led the party to withdraw. Nothing will change in the political scene as long as the situation stays the same.”

For his part, Jihad Ibrahim, member of the National Youth for Justice and Development, said that “the turnout in Damascus and al-Hasaka, where supporters of his party are concentrated, was not as it should be.”

“It is clear that there is a direction to heed the boycott. But the party is trying hard to get its candidates in the parliament which is a necessary step to create a body that would lead the Syrian national dialogue,” he added.

Ibrahim believes that “a campaign of discrimination is underway in al-Hasaka and that is why there is a boycott by some Kurds against candidates who have national tendencies.”

On the other hand, he says that “there is a sense of tribalism among the Arabs of al-Jazirah that sums up the electoral scene in eastern Syria.”

Al-Akhbar tried to contact other parties that decided to take part in the election but their representatives were busy in polling stations.

It was noticeable yesterday that some voter protested by submitting a blank paper in the voting booth. It is, according to a voter, “an option to affirm one’s citizenship and participation in a national event that opens the door to political pluralism.”

“At the same time,” he added, “it is the choice for those who are not impressed with any of the candidates who continue to live in the era of 1990s flowery slogans without putting forth anything new, including a large number of young people who did not offer anything different from traditional candidates.”

Another voter preferred to vote for Baath candidates because “despite the economic hardships that the Syrian citizen is enduring, a sense of safety and security prevailed previously in Syrian cities. Surely we owe the Baath Party for this policy and that is what makes us vote for it.”

“In addition,” he said, “the Baath candidates whom we knew in governmental agencies have proved their loyalty to the country and we have witnessed their accomplishments in their areas of work, which also encourages us to vote for them.”

A state employee near the polling station, summed up his opinion of the elections saying: “I prefer to vote for someone I know rather than someone I don’t know.”

In the areas adjacent to Damascus, where there is fighting and military operations, the elections did not go so well. The turnout was weak in places like Daraya, Harasta, Douma, and al-Mouadamiyeh.

Some complained about an article in the election law that requires those living outside their provinces to vote in their cities or prove they work in a governmental agency in the city where they reside.

This had a negative impact on the turnout of many students and private sector employees who decided to stay put and forgo the elections.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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