After three years of bloody crisis in Syria and decades of installing presidents by “referendum,” Syria is heading to a multi-candidate presidential election for the first time since the mid-20th century.
Syria is not in an exemplary, or even a normal, situation to hold a presidential election: There’s an armed conflict that has so far resulted, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in about 150,000 victims, both civilian and military. There are millions of displaced persons, refugees, missing persons and hostages. The country is fragmented and the infrastructure is destroyed, and there’s a complex constitutional mechanism that makes it difficult for opposition candidates to run, or at best, makes the competition uneven.
In an interview with As-Safir, Sami Batinjana, a political bureau member of the Third Current for Syria, said Syria is not in a position to hold elections because there are areas outside state authority, a deteriorating security situation and a huge number of displaced persons. Also, Syrians abroad will have difficulty voting because many countries have no Syrian embassies.
On the street, Syrian citizen Yasmine Homsi said that holding elections in such conditions is possible only for the “regime.” Another citizen, Raed Haidar, said, “The country is passing through a complex situation, but it didn’t reach the stage where elections cannot be held as long as state institutions are present and cohesive.” Batinjana and Homsi agree that holding elections is not necessary at this stage.
Homsi told As-Safir that holding elections that the “regime” is preparing for will worsen the divide between the Syrians. Batinjana said, “The results are known in advance because part of the opposition is against holding the elections and many figures cannot run because of the election law. Any person nominated by the regime will only be for show. So President Bashar al-Assad is still ranked first and unchallenged among the [pro-regime] public.”
Batinjana said this phase “needs a radical political solution that starts with a Syrian-Syrian dialogue table, under international sponsorship, to produce a national unity government, to find ways to stop the violence, the foreign interference and terrorism, to amend the constitution and the election laws, and to develop a new sociopolitical contract and monitoring bodies. Only afterward can we talk about presidential elections.” He warned that “holding the presidential election first could hamper the political solution.”
Haidar believes that holding elections is necessary because they are “a constitutional requirement.” He said, “Under the constitution, it is time to hold the presidential election, and therefore holding the election on time is absolutely necessary. … Syria is still passing through [difficult times] to [overcome] its crisis, and nothing would help this except holding on to the constitution and re-imposing the state’s stature, legitimacy and authority.”
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi stressed the need for holding the presidential election as scheduled in June. “The presidential election must be held on time. And what’s important is the percentage of popular participation,” he said, adding that the security situation would not preclude the holding of the presidential election on schedule.
Homsi thinks that the June election will not have a real impact on the course of the crisis because “only one of the two parties to the crisis will participate.” Batinjana thinks that the election will cause further tension with the countries that are hostile to Syria and consequently with the opposition parties affiliated with them. He said, “It is a new phase in which Assad will confirm his survival in the face of his enemies and the continuation of the conflict. … It is a phase where the regime seems more balanced and stronger than last year. Maybe this is the message that the regime wants to direct to the West.”
Haidar thinks holding the election on schedule will send a message to the world that “Syria is an independent sovereign state and that no one has the right to intervene in its internal affairs as long as there is a legitimate constitution in effect. … The presidential election will not be the end of the crisis, of course, but it will reassure the nationalist public that things are moving in their proper context.”
The Syrians are divided over the presidential election, and so are the countries of the world. The Friends of Syria group warned Syrian authorities about holding the presidential election, and said that the results will be illegitimate. But Russian officials and their allies assert that the Syrian presidential election is an internal Syrian matter.
Despite the warnings issued by many countries, and the non-participation of the Syrian National Coalition and the National Coordinating Body in the election, Syrian authorities stressed that the election will take place as scheduled, saying that “the Syrian constitution doesn’t allow anyone to disrupt the election, not the president nor the head of parliament.”
On Monday [April 21], the head of parliament Mohammad Jihad al-Laham announced that the period to submit presidential nominations has started. On Tuesday, the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Judge Adnan Zureiq, said the court is ready to receive applications for the position of president.
Before Assad’s nomination, the Friends of Syria group said, “Any electoral process led by Assad would be an insult to the innocent lives that fell during the conflict.” Russian Ambassador to Kuwait Alexi Solomatin said, “We have repeatedly stated that this is in the hands of the Syrians themselves. They are the ones to decide through the ballot box. And we do not interfere in the internal affairs of Syria because any outside interference could lead to continued fighting, as is happening now.”
Homsi doesn’t agree with Assad nominating himself for a new term because “crimes are occurring on his watch, from the killing of thousands of military personnel to thousands of children and women, and because a large number of Syrians have been displaced. … There are many figures eligible for the presidency in Syria but they are far from the spotlight.” But Batinjana said, “Assad is a Syrian citizen and he has the right to stand for election, and the ballot box will decide.”
In talking about the other candidates, Batinjana said, Farouk al-Sharaa may be an appropriate choice. He is someone who is known for his honesty and patriotism. He has a lot of experience in politics and could be acceptable to most Syrian parties. For me, I would accept any candidate chosen by the Change and Liberation Front.”
Haidar thinks that Assad’s right to run for a new term is “constitutional.” He added, “[Assad] is being asked [to run] by his supporters, who consider him the country’s safety valve. Personally, I don’t see anyone more qualified to lead the country at this crucial stage, especially since he stood fast for three years in the face of the mightiest attack witnessed by Syria since independence.” In his talk with As-Safir, he added, “The opposition wants to bring him down by force because they are fully aware that their supporters are few in number and cannot hand the presidency to [the opposition].”
Everything that is happening in Damascus until now indicates that the election will take place as scheduled. The Syrian authorities have scheduled the presidential election for May 28 for Syrian expatriates and June 3 for citizens living in Syria. The Syrian leadership is not concerned about “measures and penalties” that will happen if the election is held. The Syrian authorities are not allowing in international observers, whether or not they are affiliated with the Arab League, and they are stressing that the elections will be monitored by the judiciary, the media and civil society institutions in Syria.