The Syrian Constitution was introduced, at gunpoint, in 1973. It should be re-examined against the standards of universal human rights, secularism and consensus politics. Readers who do not believe these to be the appropriate standards for the 19 million Syrian people to aspire to, need not stop here. Otherwise, conmments are invited and appreciated.
The 156 Articles of the Constitution, together with the Preamble, are here.
The following is a useful and balanced summary by the US Department of State. My (brief) comments follow.
"Despite the existence of some institutions of democratic government in Syria, the political system places virtually absolute authority in the hands of the President. Former President Hafiz Al-Asad died on June 10, 2000, after 30 years in power. Immediately following Al-Asad's death, the Parliament amended the Constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34 years old, which allowed his son Bashar Al-Asad legally to be eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba'th party. On July 10, 2000, Bashar was elected by referendum in which he ran unopposed and received 97.29 percent of the vote. Key decisions regarding foreign policy, national security, internal politics, and the economy are made by the President, with counsel from his ministers, high-ranking members of the ruling Ba'th Party, and a relatively small circle of security advisers. Although the Parliament is elected every 4 years, the Ba'th Party is ensured a majority. The Parliament may not initiate laws but only assesses and at times modifies those proposed by the executive branch. In general all three branches of government are influenced to varying degrees by leaders of the Ba'th Party.
The Syrian constitution vests the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party with leadership functions in the state and society and provides broad powers to the president. The president, approved by referendum for a 7-year term, also is secretary general of the Ba'ath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. The president has the right to appoint ministers, to declare war and states of emergency, to issue laws (which, except in the case of emergency, require ratification by the People's Council), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants and military personnel.
Along with the National Progressive Front, the president decides issues of war and peace and approves the state's 5-year economic plans. The National Progressive Front also acts as a forum in which economic policies are debated and the country's political orientation is determined. However, because of Ba'ath Party dominance, the National Progressive Front has traditionally exercised little independent power.
The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the president be Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. Islamic jurisprudence, however, is required to be the main source of legislation.
Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces, one of which is Damascus. Each province is headed by a governor, whose appointment is proposed by the minister of the interior, approved by the cabinet and announced by executive decree. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council."
Philip I's Comments:
1. Inclusion of Point 4 in the Preamble, which reads: "Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation which insures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland's freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens. The citizen's freedom can be completed only by his economic and social liberation"
2. Representation is based on secular principles rather than the religeous or ethnic make up of the country
3. Other political groups have a voice in parliament (two shades of grey are better than one!)
1. The religion of the president is specified
2. The president's 7-year term is too long given his colossal executive powers and unlimited extensions (he can be president for life)
1. Virtually the entire Constitution contradicts Point 4 of the Preamble
2. The executive and emergency powers of the president amount to absolute and guaranteed dictatorship (absolute power corrupts absolutely).
3. Baath party's guaranteed supremacy ensures that Syria remains stuck in a time warp
4. Parliament is practically a rubber stamp for the president and Baath party. This means the executive branch rules the legislative and corrupts the judicial branches of the state, thus undermining democracy and promoting nepotism
Further comment: This Constituion, which was forced upon the population by the military coup leader, Hafez Al Assad, in 1973 continues to provide a facade of legitimacy to the Syrian regime. But it is not the most effective instrument of power in the hands of government. A complex and brutal network of security and intelligence organisations, controlled directly by the Assad clan and their close associates, permeates the regular army, the police force, every central and regional state organ, public sector organisations, the media, worker associations, universities, mosques, churches, post and telecommunications services, hotels, tour operators and transport companies! Alongside the Baath party apparatus, worker or professional associations provide another instrument of control. Membership is mandatory and both the members and the leadership are carefully vetted. Access to state employment is also carefully filtered and youth organisations are indoctrinated. The regime has become one of the world's foremost experts in population control. Its 30-year experience has been greatly enriched by its once considerable influence over Lebanese government institutions and militias. Its blatent attempt to manipulate the Lebanese Constitution has eventually led to its forced withdrawal from Lebanon.
Peaceful Syrian opposition movements may be overwhelmed by the cancerous nature of this regime. However, they must remain focused and resolute. They should state their aspirations clearly, in terms of constitutional change and constitutional safeguards. They need to work patiently with partiotic Syrians, at home and abroad, and the international community, to exert continuous pressure on the regime. They must reach a broad concensus over the key political and economic reforms then articulate them to the nation. The regime, under constant pressure, has a clear choice between a peaceful and enlightened retreat (starting with the release of the peaceful prisoners of conscience and restoration of freedom of expression) or a violent end through implosion.