Syrian president Bashar Assad is quietly preparing the ground to hold elections early this summer, even as the Syrian conflict rampages into its fourth year with large parts of the country either in ruins or under opposition control.
Amid the destruction, which has left more than 140,000 dead, presidential elections may seem impossible. But Syrian officials insist they will be held on time.
The election is central to the Syrian government’s depiction of the conflict on the international stage. At failed peace negotiations earlier this year in Geneva, Syrian officials categorically ruled out that Assad would step down in the face of the rebel uprising aimed at ousting him.
Instead, they present the elections due at the end of Assad’s term as the solution to the crisis: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, then he will leave.
Observers say it would be preposterous to think a vote could reflect a real choice, and that Assad is certain to win. It would be impossible to hold polls in areas controlled by rebels. In areas under government control, many would not dare vote for anyone but Assad for fear of secret police who have kept a close eye on past elections.
“There is a gap between what goes on the mind of the Syrian president and reality. He has a fixation on the presidency and he doesn’t see beyond it,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut.
“He can hold elections, and if the international community were to take these elections seriously then there is something really wrong in the international community,” he said.
In government-held areas, pro-Assad demonstrators have recently begun holding rallies in support of the armed forces, carrying Assad posters, Syrian flags and banners lauding “victories against terrorists,” the term that the government uses to refer to rebels.
Assad and his British-born wife, Asma, have emerged from months of seclusion, visiting with school students, mothers and displaced people students in a campaign aimed at infusing confidence and optimism into the war-wrecked nation.
As the fighting on the ground shifts, there is no telling how the battlefield will look by the summer. But for now, Assad has overall good reason to feel self-assured.
Backed by Shiite fighters from the Lebanese group Hizbullah and Iraqi militias, Syrian troops have seized areas around Damascus and the central province of Homs that links the capital with Assad’s stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.
Earlier this month, government forces recaptured two key rebel-held towns near the border with Lebanon. Troops also regained areas outside the city of Aleppo and secured its international airport, where flights resumed after a 15-month halt.
No date has been set yet for the vote, which must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s seven-year term ends on July 17th. This month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door — at least in theory — to potential contenders besides Assad.
It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship, apparently to prevent opposition figures in exile from running.
So far, no one has come forward to run against Assad.