Sunday, January 14, 2007
The Syrian elections in 2007
Unconfirmed reports suggest that this year's parliamentary elections will be held in April (they had previously been scheduled for early March). The presidential referendum has been scheduled for late May and municipal elections for August.
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These elections will be taking place against an extraordinarily complex and tense political backdrop. Since the last parliamentary elections in 2003, the region has been rocked by the Iraq invasion and Israeli-Hezbollah war. Syria has signed a military pact with Iran but the regime has been badly shaken by the forced withdrawal from Lebanon, the Hariri inquiry and vociferous calls for democratic change by dissidents at home and abroad. Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam defected from the ruling Baath Party and formed the National Salvation Front with the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition figures in exile. He accused Bashar Assad of ordering the murder of Hariri and his family and close associates of embezzling US$20 billion. The US has imposed sanctions on Syria and is actively seeking to isolate Assad, decouple him from Iran and weaken his power base.
The Baath Party, which has governed Syria since 1962, had no choice but to bend with the wind. It was forced to promise seemingly far-reaching reforms at its 10th national conference in June 2005. The language used was, however, non binding and vague. The regime’s acknowledgement of the need for political reforms nevertheless offered a glimmer of hope to democracy campaigners. The following were the main promises that the Party made:
1) "Free" municipal elections in 2007 and a possible move to a proportional representation system. A new local administration law is to be introduced allowing citizens to be freely elected to the 15,000 municipal council seats. This would end the system of nominations and closed lists that are controlled by the Baath Party and its partners in the National Progressive Front. It would also represent the first experiment in local democracy since the Party seized power in 1962. A committee is to debate changing the current simple majority electoral system (for parliamentary elections) to a proportional representation system.
2) "Revision" of the emergency law, decreed by the Baath Party in March 1963. The law designates the prime minister as the martial law governor and the interior minister as his deputy and gives them extraordinary powers. Among its sweeping provisions are “the placing of restrictions on freedoms of individuals with respect to meetings, residence, travel and passage in specific places or at particular times; preventive arrest of anyone suspected of endangering public security and order; authorisation to investigate persons and places; delegation of any person to perform any of these tasks.” It further allows for the censorship of letters, publications, broadcasts, and other forms of communication. The law forbids contravention of orders from the military governor, offences “against the security of the state and public order,” offences “against public authority,” offences “which disturb public confidence,” and offences that “constitute a general danger.” Meetings of more than five people are also banned without prior approval from the government.
3) Elimination of extraordinary judicial courts. The Supreme State Security Court was established in March 1968 to try political and security cases. Decree 47/1968, which created the court, specifically stated that the procedural rules of the court would not be “confined to the usual measures” that governed Syria’s justice system (i.e. the court can operate outside of the state's legal system!). The minister of the interior and the president may ratify, nullify, or alter the verdicts. Defendants are not present during the preliminary phase of the trial during which the prosecutor presents evidence. Also, lawyers are not ensured access to their clients before the trial and are excluded from the court during their client’s initial interrogation. Evidence could be introduced that had no ordinary standing in law, such as hearsay or the opinion of the prosecutor. The absence of any rules of procedure eliminates any possibility of appeal on procedural grounds. Proceedings are closed. Many Syrians imprisoned for their political activities and views have been sentenced by this court. Intellectuals and democratic campaigners can therefore be randomly targeted, tried behind closed doors and imprisoned for unspecified periods. Military courts also have the authority to try civilians as well as military personnel. The military can establish “field courts” and try cases referred by the minister of defence and prosecuted by the military prosecutor.
4) Introduction of a law permitting the establishment of new political parties. Parties based on religion or ethnicity would be prohibited. A new party would have to have branches in every region of Syria (14) and collect a minimum of 10,000 to 15,000 member signatures. The law would therefore prevent the licensing of Islamist or Kurdish parties, the latter because most of Syria's 2 million Kurds (10% of the population) are concentrated in the northeast and northwest.
5) "Reconsideration" of Article 8 of the Constitution of 1972, which declares that the Baath Party is the “leading party of the state and society”. This particularly abhorrent part of the constitution has prevented the promotion of democratic principles in the Syrian education system, state institutions and popular culture. It has helped to turn Syria into a dictatorship and a corrupt and backward state.
6) Easing of controls over freedom of expression and the media. Private publications were legalised in 2001, under Decree 50, but the restrictive nature of legislation concerning content all but erases any apparent gains in freedom of expression. Decree 50 states that private presses are to be unrestricted in heir operations, but then it later states that they have to be licensed and can lose this license and face heavy fines (between US$10,000 and US$20,000 when the average per capita income is around US$1,500 per annum) and/or up to three years imprisonment if they report on military affairs, incite revolt or in any way threaten the "national interest", contact foreign nations, accept money from foreign sources, libel or defame, print "falsehoods" or "fabricate reports." The prime minister can also reject applications for licenses at any time for the sake of "public interest”. Journalists are required by law to divulge their sources when requested to do so by authorities, and a 1951 media law prohibits any kind of private broadcasting by radio or by television. A law passed in early 2002 allowed the setting up of private radio stations but they were only authorised to broadcast music and advertising. The only critical newspaper, Addomari, launched in February 2001, was forced to close two years later after constant bureaucratic harassment. Resident foreign reporters in Syria are also under surveillance and have great difficulty getting their annual accreditation renewed. The pan-Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera has never been allowed to open a permanent office. Many Internet websites are also censored in Syria.
What has changed since June 2005?
The only positive political change that has been made relates to municipal elections (see below). None of the other promises made at the 10th Baath Party conference have been acted upon. Far from authorising more political parties, the regime has since cracked down on activists, imprisoning some without trial and charging some with treason following the Damascus and Beirut-Damascus Declarations which called for fundamental democratic transformation and better relations with Lebanon. The country still has no free and independent media and Syrians have no other source of news but the state-run media that recycles official propaganda. Syria remains “one of the worst offenders against Internet freedom and censors opposition and independent news websites, barring access to those that deal with Syrian policy, monitors online activity to silence dissident voices, and jailing Internet users and bloggers” (source: Reporters Without Borders)
The Constitution and political groups
It is important to be aware of the constitutional framework within which this year’s three elections will take place and the local and exiled political forces competing for power in Syria:
Parliamentary Elections: There are just over 7 million people aged 18 or over eligible to vote in Syria. The country has a 250-member unicameral parliament. Political parties include the governing Baath Party and a group of small socialist, communist and nationalist parties, which are licensed and controlled by the Baath Party, within a bloc called the National Progressive Front. Opposition parties exist but the majority are illegal and their leaders are frequently harassed or arrested. The oldest are the Syrian Democratic People’s Party (whose leader is the veteran communist Ryad Al-Turk) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death in Syria. The turnout in the March 2003 parliamentary elections was 63.5%. 1490 candidates, representing the National Progressive Front, in addition to a number of independents, competed for the 250 seats. The National Democratic Rally, which represented the authorised opposition at the time, boycotted the elections on the grounds that the election processes was undemocratic. Article 8 of the 1973 Constitution declares the Baath Party to be the leading party in the state and society. So the Baath Party took 137 of the 167 seats guaranteed for the National Progressive Front. The remaining 83 seats are reserved for independents, typically businessmen and women. 30 women who ran on the lists of the National Democratic Front won parliamentary seats. No independent women succeeded in capturing any seats. New members joining the parliament were 178 in number, while 72 of those elected were incumbents. Article 53 of the 1973 Constitution states that half of the 250 seats are reserved for "workers and peasants". It is not clear how many of the members fall into this "working class" category. The new members included 40 lawyers, 19 medical doctors, 36 engineers, 14 businessmen and 4 industrialists. The Syrian parliament has very limited powers as the president, as leader of the Baath Party can propose laws and then approve them! This has led to parliament becoming a rubber-stamping body that does not represent all the people, is incapable of determining national strategies or priorities independently or holding the executive branch accountable for its policies and actions.
Presidential Referendum: The president holds the highest executive office in the country and is approved by a referendum for a 7-year term, which can be renewed indefinitely. He is also secretary general of the Baath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front. In addition, he is commander of the army and holds the highest rank (Naqeeb). 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 parliament), to declare amnesty, to amend the constitution, and to appoint civil servants, military personnel and provincial governors. Article 137 of the Civil Service Law was amended in January 2005 to transfer to the president the cabinet’s power to fire civil servants. The President must be a Muslim (prior to 1972 the Constitution had not prescribed the president’s religion) and at least 34 years of age (the minimum age had been 40 until parliament cynically lowered it in 2000 within 24 hours to allow Bashar Assad to inherit the presidency from his deceased father). The president can block any amendments to the constitution, which ensures he cannot be legally stripped of any of his immense executive powers. Article 149 of the constitution states:
(1) The President of the Republic as well as a two-thirds majority of the People's Assembly members have the right to propose amendments to the Constitution.
(2) The amendment proposal includes the provisions to be amended and the reasons for it.
(3) Upon receipt of the proposal, the People's Assembly sets up a special committee to investigate it.
(4) The Assembly discusses the amendment proposal, and if approved by a two-thirds majority of its members, the amendment is considered final, provided it is approved by the President of the Republic. It will then be included in the body of the Constitution.
Furthermore, the president is a member of the Supreme Constitutional Court which rules on the constitutionality of laws when the president or one-fourth of parliament challenges the constitutionality of a law before its promulgation. The president appoints the four other members to four-year, renewable terms. A candidate for president is first proposed by the Baath Party and nominated by parliament. After the nomination process, the candidate is then confirmed by a popular referendum (rather than competitive elections) in which the candidate must capture a majority of the votes. If the candidate fails to secure a majority, parliament nominates another candidate and the referendum process is repeated. Bashar Assad's presidency was confirmed in a referendum held on 10 July 2000 which apparently afforded him 97% of the popular vote. His father, Hafez Assad, was in the second year of his fifth term as president when he died in June 2000. The Assad family has therefore been at the apex of Syria's power structure for 35 years. Bashar Assad is now seeking a second 7-year term.
Municipal Elections: Syria is divided administratively into 14 provinces (Governorates) 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 a presidential decree. The governor is assisted by an elected provincial council. The provinces encompass 107 towns and 2,480 villages. Their populations elect 15,029 representatives for the respective provincial councils. The last elections were held in 2003 and were based on the "closed lists" system and the turnout was only 37%. Under the closed-lists system, which has been in existence since 1971, the Baath Party and its partners in the National Progressive Front, nominate the candidates. 60% of the seats have been reserved for "workers and peasants" and 40% for other social groups. The justification for the closed lists has been “to ensure that a fixed quota of women, engineers, workers and farmers entered local government”. The new local administration law, introduced in September 2005, abolished list-based nominations but continued to allow the cabinet, headed by the president, to appoint provincial governors by decree. Municipal budgets remain small and controlled from Damascus. The new law has imposed very strict limits on campaign funding and prohibited foreign funding after the US had hinted at providing direct financial support to pro-democracy activists.
The Opposition: In the last three years, opposition groups have made an effort to consolidate into umbrella organisations and iron out their differences, but they still remain relatively small and fragmented.
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The fissures among them appear to revolve around the role of religion in society, ethnic rights, Syria’s role in the region and reform versus regime change. A good recent survey of the Syrian opposition can be found here. The US and European governments are unsure how best to support these groups and who, among them, will emerge as the focal point for the entire opposition movement. Some groups are being used as instruments of foreign intelligence services. The CIA and Israeli Mossad appear to have established connections with some Syria-based Kurdish groups and attempted to foment trouble by fuelling separatist sentiment in northern Syria in recent years. Other groups, such as the Washington-based Reform Party of Syria (led by Farid Ghadry), which seeks regime change, if necessary though foreign intervention, and runs a radio station from Cyprus, have strong links with the US neoconservatives and Israeli lobby and, therefore, carry little credibility in Syria. The National Salvation Front, which was established in 2006 by the former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam after his dramatic defection together with the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other smaller groups, is attempting to reach out to the Syrian public but lacks mass communication channels. Plans to establish a satellite TV are currently being considered by opposition groups.
In sum, Syria’s antiquated constitution, laws and arbitrary rules allow the executive branch (essentially the President) supported by a brutal security and intelligence apparatus to hijack the state by controlling the legislative branch and corrupting the judiciary. It thus undermines democracy, human development and long-term economic progress in the name of security and stability. Meanwhile the middle class, often perceived as the guarantor of stability, is increasingly melting away. The regime is finding it extremely difficult to attract and retain talented Syrians to implement any public sector reforms and has become increasingly isolated both at home and abroad. With 80% of the Syrian population aged thirty years or under, most of whom indoctrinated by the state education and single-party systems and denied access to free press, it is not hard to see how the regime has been able to survive for 35 years.
Persistent pressure, exercised cautiously, both at home and abroad can pay off, especially when mounting economic problems threaten the regime’s existence. The introduction of the new local administration law is a welcome development, and may eventually enhance freedoms at grass root level and improve economic efficiency, providing local councils are given greater administrative powers and financial autonomy. The parliamentary elections and presidential referendum will, however, preserve the status quo and do nothing to pull Syria out of its current political and economic quagmire or enhance its standing as a progressive and talented nation.
Sources & References:
Arab Political Systems: Baseline Information and Reforms – Syria, Oct '06
Syrian Constitution - English
Syria Constitution - Arabic