Syria's New Parties: Modest Goals Against Baath Hold

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Al Malab, Homs 16 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Shaam News Network - Handout)

By: Tareq Abdel Hay

Published Sunday, March 18, 2012

Al-Akhbar meets the founders of two new Syrian parties as they prepare to contest the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Political pluralism has only existed in theory in Syria over the past four decades of rule by the Arab Baath Socialist Party under the leadership of Assad the father and later the son.

There have been other legal parties, grouped together in the Baath-led National Progressive Front (NPF). These include two Communist parties (the Khalid Bakdash and Yusuf Faysal factions), and several Nasserist parties, more recently joined by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Ten years ago, the regime allowed them to open offices and publish newspapers, but their level of activity remains minimal and they are completely overshadowed by the Baath.

On Wednesday, the Parties Affairs’ Committee, headed by Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar agreed to license two new parties: the Syrian National Youth Party and the National Youth Party for Justice and Development. This brings to eight the total number registered since the new political parties law was introduced. The others are the Democratic Vanguard, Syria the Homeland, Syrian Democratic, Arab Democratic Solidarity, Partisans, and National Development parties.

The new law bans parties based on ethnicity, religion, or sect. It prohibits them from creating military or paramilitary formations, or employing, threatening, or inciting violence of any kind.

The law also sets out a number of other general conditions which political parties must meet, such as compliance with the constitution and respect for democratic principles, the rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights. Parties should also have “overt principles, goals, means, and funding” and must not be “a branch of any non-Syrian party or political formation.”

A party must have at least 50 founding members, aged 25 or over, who have been Syrian nationals for more than 10 years, and are not members of any other party, Syrian or non-Syrian.

The founders of the National Youth Party for Justice and Development come from diverse, religious, social, and cultural backgrounds, and want to “create an active segment in society,” the party’s president, Parween Ibrahim, tells Al-Akhbar. Their focus is on getting young people politically engaged and developing a “civilized and democratic” vision for Syria’s future, she says.

Ibrahim says that the similarity between her avowedly secular party’s name and that of Turkey’s governing Islamist party is partly deliberate. “Every word [in the name] is part of our focus,” she explains, adding, “We chose the name as a challenge, because it has become associated with the Islamists. We are secular and include people from all faiths and ethnicities. We are attempting to secularize the name and prevent it from being monopolized by the Islamists, who influence the street and drive parts of it to extremism.”

The party has not been invited to participate in the anticipated national dialogue, but plans to actively participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections in May. Although it has yet to finalize its election manifesto, it is clearly hoping to rally support among ethnic Kurds. Some of its founding members are Kurds who are active on Kurdish issues and in political mobilization.

Ibrahim explains that Kurds “have suffered immensely in the past, even though it was recently decided to grant them citizenship. We want to attract this disenfranchised segment to the party. We support the preservation of their cultural and linguistic identity within the framework of one homeland. We see them as an untapped political force.”

Joining a national political party would make Kurds realize they could have an effective voice, she says, and strengthen their sense of belonging to Syria. “If we isolate them, they will fall prey to the extremist separatist parties. Our motto is ‘Syria is the Homeland of All its Children,’ and the Kurds are a major component of Syrian society,” Ibrahim adds.

Speaking for the Syria the Homeland Party, engineer and founding member Ghatfan Hammoud says he and his colleagues want to take advantage of the recent reforms and political party legislation to “set an example for citizens who want to express their political orientation.” They are mostly middle-class, and include no former politicians or rich or famous figures.

“From the outset, we are building the party on the basis of realism and being close to ordinary people’s lives,” he says.

“For all the big ideas, we wanted to develop rational approaches in line with our motto – ‘citizenship, dignity, love,’” he adds.

Hammoud confirms that his party plans to run candidates in the forthcoming elections once nominations are open. But he points to an important complication. Many Syrians from all walks of life are members of the Baath. They cannot join other parties for fear of being labelled dissidents. Otherwise, large numbers of them would join the new parties.

He says that these parties do not see themselves as competing with the “insignificant” minor parties in the NPF, but with the hitherto all-controlling Baath. Despite losing its constitutionally-enshrined privileges, it retains a large membership and abundant resources, and for all its past faults remains a formidable rival.

As for the national dialogue, Hammoud says that while that used to be of vital importance, the priority now is to engage in the democratic process, and engage in dialogue via the ballot box.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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