Syrian Elections, Syria

The political landscape in Syria has been subject to extensive debates given its complex and conflict-prone disposition within the Middle Eastern region. Of the politics that has been governed by a despotic leadership over the years, the predominant influence of Bashar al-Assad over projecting Syria as progressive, internally stable and democratically potent was evidently reflected in the local elections held in the second week of September, 2018. The elections were held in the government occupied areas of the country and hold distinctive significance as they are the first local-level elections ever held since 2011 i.e. the year which marks Syria’s entrance into a state of crisis. However, despite this point of significance, the updates on local body elections in one of the most troubled geographies have remained limited to news flashes alone. Weeks after the elections that were conducted with the aim of (re)establishing a state of peace and order, the discourse on the state of exercise and its far-fetched implications remains scanty.

The Syrian politics stormed the international arena following the rise of popular confrontational movements by the locals against the oppressive Assad regime back in 2011. After eight long years since the first demonstrations took place in Syria, endless misery in terms of unattended humanitarian crises and consistent instability has completely tarnished the social fabric of the country. Sustained fighting in different provinces followed by episodic institutional resistance has continued to characteristically define the civil war in Syria. An added component to the upsetting dynamics of the said conflict is its ever-broadened scope; widened in the view of increased international involvement and the subsequent manipulation of regional religio-political facets at the hands of international players. In that, the political grievances among the Sunni rebels against their Shia Alawite leadership have drastically deepened over the years, resulting in an over-all damaged social order and formation of a fertile ground enabling infirmities such as ISIS to flourish. Despite massive confrontation from the insurgent groups, the Syrian government has managed to cease control of majority rebel-held areas. Not to mention the tactics deployed to ensure this control and the ‘occasional and often engineered’ international response towards these tactics.

After eight long years since the first demonstrations took place in Syria, endless misery in terms of unattended humanitarian crises and consistent instability has completely tarnished the social fabric of the country.

With the government actively engaged in re-gaining the territories under opposition, brutal fighting continues in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib. Idlib is of remarkable significance given its role as one of the first provinces to take up arms against the government during the initial phases of the conflict. Eight years into the conflict, and the province robustly stands as a major rebel stronghold. At present, the resistance in Idlib and the Syrian efforts to confront the said resistance on ground, define much of the Middle Eastern politics. Syrian control over swaths of the southern end, estimated around sixty per cent of the rebel-held areas, automatically adds to the significance of northern Idlib and the government’s proposed offensive to deal with the resistance.

The southern territories under government control include Palmyra, Homs, Daraa, Aleppo and Deir Az Zor. Local elections held in the government controlled areas stand momentous considering their influence on the juxtaposition of Syrian allies in its potential offensive in northern Idlib and also in determining the future course of democracy in Syria. During the elections, over 40,000 candidates contested for the candidacy of 18,478 seats of the local administrative council. Though the post-election reports pointed towards a substantially satisfying turnout at 6,551 polling stations, the exact (official) figure of participation remains unclear. Since most of the aspirants for the candidacy shared an allegiance with the (ruling) Baath party, one way or the other, the preliminary results declaring Baathist majority faced major charges of alleged rigging. The Syrian elections are not new to claims of alleged systematic rigging which have remained largely debated following the presidential elections in the country as well. The fact that half of the displaced Syrian population could not become a part of the voting process has also raised further questions on the transparency and successful materialization of these elections. Questions also surround judgements regarding whether or not the parliamentary councils (s)elected as a result of such sham elections are a true representative of the Syrian people. The concerns regarding rigging and participation of voters are legit in their nature, yet traditional by character. International responses to the much contested elections remained rather mixed. The Syrian counterparts and their allies including France, Germany and the US raised serious concerns on the seriousness of an election planned at such critical juncture when an entire northern swath of the country was engaged in mainstream war in Idlib. Russia, perhaps hand-tied given its alliance with Syria regarded the local elections as the need of the hour critical to prevent a vacuum of power which would have hurt the country to its very political core.

During the elections, over 40,000 candidates contested for the candidacy of 18,478 seats of the local administrative council. Though the post-election reports pointed towards a substantially satisfying turnout at 6,551 polling stations, the exact (official) figure of participation remains unclear.

The concerns surrounding the appropriacy of the timing to conduct local elections with its northern end engaged in war, half of its population displaced and unable to vote and the choice of candidates, are endless. What remains more concerning is the cleavage between the anticipated response that the elections were supposed to attract and the practically non-existent interest that they could garner. Moreover, equally important are the questions that emerge out of these elections. It appears that the Assad regime that had long been subject to criticism over its aggressive policies of engagement pursued the decision of conducting local elections in order to (re)establish the legitimacy of Asad’s rule; or simply put, to reiterate Assad’s predominance in the Syrian political circles. Though very cosmetic in their nature and lacking popular reception, the majority of the Baathist party has, in a way attained the aforementioned objective. The most troublesome impact that the Syrian local elections have generated is the problematization of democracy itself. This has come coupled with Assad’s strategic decision to conduct elections, thereby supporting free will and democracy and at the same time stepping over it. No matter how surface-based, the local elections have earned the Baathist party a boarding pass to stay and practice its horrendous policies as it continuously has.

Aizah Azam

is a graduate from National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad. She holds MS degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. Her areas of interest include local politics, radicalization, terrorism & counter-terrorism and discourse analysis .She currently works as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR), Islamabad.

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