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Syria’s ‘sham’ presidential election: what is the point?

Wednesday’s poll is designed to give President Bashar al-Assad ‘a veneer of legitimacy both at home and abroad’

Syrians will cast their votes tomorrow in the country’s first presidential election since 2014 – with a fourth seven-year term for President Bashar al-Assad all but guaranteed.

Free and fair this election is not. An initial 51 candidates have been whittled down to just three, with Assad standing against “two obscure rivals”, Reuters reports. “No one really doubts that Wednesday’s election will extend his presidency despite ten years of war that has left Syria in ruins,” says the agency.

Assad’s first decade

Assad has ruled the country for 21 years, having taken over in 2000 after his father’s death.

His confirmation as president then came as no surprise. He was the sole candidate and the Syrian constitution had been amended to lower the minimum age for the presidency from 40 to 35, Assad’s precise age at the time.

When reporting on the 2000 referendum, The New York Times noted that one woman who voted against Assad was “given another ballot to commend the new government”. And at some polling stations, voters were encouraged to use their own blood to mark their approval for Assad. 

During Assad’s first decade in power, Syria’s economy “seemed to thrive”, with GDP per capita doubling, according to the American research group Brookings.

But at the same time “the social and economic costs of deep, systemic dysfunctions were growing”. When anti-government protests broke out in 2011, Assad responded with uncompromising violence, his security forces opening fire on and killing demonstrators.

Major devastation

The ensuing civil war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than six million, says the BBC. A further 5.6 refugees have fled abroad. After a decade of conflict, Assad now controls almost all of the country, with fighting mainly confined to the north. 

In 2014 Assad won a third consecutive term with a landslide victory. At the same time, Syria was suffering major devastation as his government intensified attacks against civilians.

In spite of the election including “other candidates on the ballot for the first time in decades”, his victory was “always a foregone conclusion”, reported The Guardian. As they have with tomorrow’s election, the opposition and its Western allies denounced the 2014 vote as a farce. “You can’t have an election where millions of your people don’t even have an ability to vote,” the then US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time.

Five years of brutal Isis rule in parts of Syria formed the backdrop to Assad’s third term as the terrorist group attempted to establish a caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in Iraq. The jihadist group lost its last stronghold, Baghuz, in eastern Syria, in 2019, but “the ideology and socioeconomic fault lines that gave birth to it are still intact in the region”, Al Jazeera reports.

Throughout Assad’s third term, Syria’s bloody civil war has raged on, backed by world powers. In March 2020, Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed a ceasefire in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province. That same month, Syria confirmed its first Covid-19 case. A year on, aid agencies have warned that millions of people across the country are at risk from the virus, exacerbated by shortages of tests, oxygen and vaccines.

In 2020, Syria came almost bottom of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which analyses the state of democracy around the world, ranking just above the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and North Korea.

‘A choreographed affair’

So why feign democracy in the first place? Bethan McKernan, Middle East correspondent at The Observer, says this week’s “sham” election is “designed to give the president a veneer of legitimacy at home and abroad”.

Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher and non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, tells her: “The elections will be used by both the regime and Russia to show that they won, and they claim Syria is safe, so refugees can return. The election is also a factor in rehabilitating the regime among Arab countries, and maybe the Arab League.”

Despite the “crumbled” economy and continued pockets of fighting, mostly in the north, Western governments and domestic opponents “view the vote as a choreographed affair to rubber stamp his rule”, says Reuters.

Maan Abdul Salam, who heads Syrian think tank ETANA, tells the agency: “These elections are aimed at the West, taking the pattern of Western-style elections in one way or the other to give an ‘I am like you’ message.”

The Syrian authorities would like to present the presidential election as “a return to normality after a decade of devastating warfare”, says The Telegraph, but it adds that few of the six million refugees who left the country over the past ten years seem willing to heed the call to return. Young Syrians who remained are even plotting to leave amid “spiralling rents, unemployment, and shortages of fuel and food”, says the newspaper.

As one engineering graduate tells the newspaper: “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”


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