AMMAN — While the elections held by the Syrian regime are, understandably, viewed by its opponents as farcical, the harshest criticism to this week’s parliamentarian elections has come specifically from some of the regime’s most staunch supporters. In an ironic turn, well-known pro-regime candidates attacked the July 19 elections, in rhetoric resembling that of the opposition, by stressing not only fraud but also the fundamental role of corrupt actors in these elections.

Exclusion on all sides

According to the Minister of Justice, Hisham al-Shaar, the election to choose the 250 members of the People’s Assembly had a participation rate of approximately 33 percent. 

From the very beginning, however, the election excluded eligible voters living in areas outside of regime control, such as northwest Syria, which alone hosts more than four million Syrians. In addition, some 5.5 million refugees in neighboring countries and northeast Africa, as well as hundreds of thousands in other countries, especially in Europe, were not included. 

Further, as soon as the initial results of the elections were announced, the president of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry, Fares Shehabi, who was an Aleppo province candidate for the Assembly, wrote in a later-deleted post to his Facebook page that “the message was clear...either blind obedience to the growing system of corruption...or exclusion and punishment…!” Shehabi went on to say in a later post that he had been “excluded by a malicious and open conspiracy with dirty and obscene methods, the main goal of which was to take revenge on me while weakening the huge industrial bloc I represent nationally with a loud and independent voice that is not subject to dictates and orders, and which does not yield to anybody.”

Additionally, the name of Muhammad Kheir Saryoul, from Reef Dimashq province, was removed from the ruling Baath Party’s National Unity list, even though he won first place in the newly introduced primary elections-like voting process inside the party. Unlike Shehabi, Saryoul reacted to his exclusion by expressing his confidence in the decisions of “the leadership.”

The trick of primaries

In choosing its candidates for the latest elections, the Baath Party, which usually controls a majority of the seats in the People’s Assembly, adopted a new mechanism by which the authority to select the party’s candidates was transferred from the Baath Central Leadership (formerly known as the “Regional Leadership”) to the party’s bases that held conferences of the party branches for this purpose.

Accordingly, party members vote internally to choose the most popular figures, thereby selecting those most able to win the elections. The results are then presented to the party leadership to choose the final candidates. 

However, in practice, at least some candidates who won the “party primaries” were excluded. In addition to Muhammad Kheir Saryoul, for example, “the head of the Journalists’ Union, Musa Abdelnour, was ranked twelfth, but a person ranked nineteenth was nominated in his place,” Ayman Abdelnour, the US-based director of Syrian Christians for Peace Organization, told Syria Direct.

The goal of “primaries,” Abdelnour added, was not to carry out democratic elections, but rather to “discover the strength of all the ideological currents working under the umbrella of the Baath Party by giving them the freedom of elections, and thereby revealing these currents and their ability to get votes.” Abdelnour pointed to the need to connect the “primaries” with the regime’s policy “which it followed a year and a half ago, to strengthen the Islamic current against the Muslim Brotherhood, or the conservative current outside the regime, by supporting the Qubaisiyat [a women-led Islamic organization] and giving them positions and power in schools, such as appointing Salma Ayyash as deputy to the Minister of Religious Endowments, and establishing the Youth Religious Team [under the Ministry of Religious Endowments].”

Amid “fear that the Baath Party has been largely infiltrated and includes many conservative or Islamist elements, alongside figures from the Syrian National Party who joined the [Baath] party when the [National] party was underground,” said Abdelnour, “the principle of primaries [came] to reveal the strength of all the ideological currents under the Baath Party umbrella” and therefore “draw a map of the political powers in the Baath Party and their figureheads.”

Following that, “Kamal al-Assad [cousin of Bashar al-Assad and head of the Latakia Chamber of Trade and Industry] and Asma al-Assad were assigned to choose candidates for the party and write off the undesirable ones among them, including names affiliated with Maher al-Assad and Iran.”

Suppression on top of suppression

The lack of a real role for the Syrian People’s Assembly does not diminish its importance for the regime, particularly regarding future developments the country could see. The Assembly is the body empowered to pass laws and legislation, including the constitution, which has become the focus of the United Nations-backed political process through the negotiations of the “Constitutional Committee.” The Assembly also approves candidates for Syria’s presidential elections, slated for 2021. 

With signs pointing, albeit inconclusively, to a change in Russia’s position towards Bashar al-Assad personally, “the regime fears, and even expects Russia to impose some kind of solution or a particular political proposal,” which in Abdelnour’s opinion pushed the regime to “select individuals for the current People’s Assembly who will implement its policy fully and without hesitation.”

“The regime worries that a new constitution will be presented to the members of the People’s Assembly,” said Abdelnour, and in preparation for that “has removed figures who enjoy social status and public respect or represent a region or sect and consequently may hesitate to completely align with the regime, such as Maria Saadah and Tarif Qoutrash, who are prestigious figures in Damascus.” As such, Assad has “pushed for replacements with no strength.”

 

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson