6 min read  | Damascus, Politics

Syrian presidential elections: Spectacle and ‘electoral farce’


May 5, 2021

AMMAN — Out of 51 applications for candidacy in Syria’s presidential elections, the Constitutional Court announced on May 3 the acceptance of just three candidates to run in the elections slated for May 20 for citizens outside Syria and May 26 for citizens inside Syria. 

While Syrians living in areas outside of regime control, including some four million people in the last opposition areas in the country’s northwest, are deprived of casting their votes in “the electoral farce,” as Syrians on social media have termed it, millions of others may also be barred under legal and constitutional pretexts, or due to security and logistical obstacles preventing them from participating. 

A decade after the start of the Syrian revolution, nearly half the country’s population is internally displaced or refugees, meaning they may be left out of both running and voting in the electoral process, according to the articles of the Syrian Constitution and General Elections Law.

This is not new in Syria, where elections are “tailored to fit Bashar al-Assad, to brazenly ensure his re-election before the eyes of the world,” Syrian opposition figure and former head of the Syrian National Council George Sabra told Syria Direct. He cited the amendment to Article 82 of the Syrian Constitution, “which took just minutes and put Bashar al-Assad in the presidency” by lowering the minimum age requirement from 40 years old to 34, Assad’s age when he inherited his father’s rule. 

Obstacles to candidacy and election

A decade after the start of the Syrian revolution, nearly half the country’s population is internally displaced or refugees, meaning they may be left out of both running and voting in the electoral process, according to the articles of the Syrian Constitution and General Elections Law.

Article 84 of the Syrian Constitution and Article 30 of the General Elections Law stipulate that candidates for election should “be a resident of the Syrian Arab Republic for no less than 10 years continuously upon being nominated.” This excludes those wishing to run who live outside Syria, and especially political opponents, most of whom have left the country. 

Article 105 of the General Elections Law stipulates that a Syrian voter living outside the country must vote “with a regular, valid Syrian passport stamped with an exit stamp from any Syrian border crossing.” This requirement bars every Syrian refugee who fled the country through unofficial crossings or smuggling networks from participating in the elections.

The fear of extortion at Syrian embassies and consulates, as well as the high costs of issuing and renewing a Syrian passport—the most expensive in the world—deprives Syrians living abroad with expired passports or who have reached legal voting age while abroad and need to obtain documents, from participating in the elections, said Mazen Kseibi, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Syrian Association for Citizens Dignity (SACD). 

Kseibi told Syria Direct there are additional obstacles, such as “some refugees’ inability to get to Syrian embassies, or the absence of embassies in some countries.” 

Constitutional exclusion also applies to citizens inside Syria who want to run in the presidential election. Under Article 85, “the candidacy application shall not be accepted unless the applicant has acquired the support of at least 35 members of the People’s Assembly,” while “no member of the assembly may support more than one candidate.” This rules out most candidates who have applied for the current elections, as the Arab Socialist Baath Party and its allies in the National Unity List won 177 out of 250 seats in the People’s Assembly in the legislative elections held in July 2020. This means that Bashar al-Assad, as the Regional Secretary of the Baath Party, has secured their support. 

But even if displaced Syrians and refugees were allowed to take part in the elections, it would not change the result. According to a survey conducted by the SACD, 84.8 percent of respondents believed that elections in Syrian were not fair or legitimate before 2011. Some 53.5 percent of respondents said they had been pressured or forced to vote. 

The international stance on elections

In the wake of the official announcement of the date for Syrian presidential elections, the UN announced that it would not be involved. In a press conference held at the international body’s permanent headquarters in New York, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, said “these elections will be held under the current constitution and are not part of the political process.” He stressed the need to reach a political solution under Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for an end to hostilities, the formation of a transitional government and elections under the auspices of the UN. 

Additionally, the Secretary of State of the United States, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Italy announced their rejection of any political process without the participation of all Syrians in a joint statement issued on March 15. They said this year’s proposed elections would not be free and fair.

The Syrian General Elections Law established a mechanism to oversee elections and monitor the electoral process by granting the Supreme Constitutional Court the right to supervise them under Article 34. But with seven members of the court appointed by the President of the Republic under Article 141 of the Constitution, the independence, integrity and impartiality of the electoral process is called into question. 

Aaron Lund, a researcher in Middle East and Syrian affairs at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), said “the current presidential elections are not in line with Resolution 2254,” which drew a political roadmap that “includes a new constitution, governing body and elections.” 

Lund does not expect the presidential elections to have a direct impact on negotiations, which are led by the UN through the Geneva talks. Nor do they herald a change in the political reality, as they are “simply taking place because the Syrian Constitution requires they be held every seven years,” he told Syria Direct

If Damascus were able to ensure broad participation both inside and outside Syria in elections “that the Syrian government organizes and controls the outcome of,” said Lund, “it would be a way to demonstrate that [the Syrian government] is still stable, strong and in control.”

The political opposition’s stance on elections

The current presidential elections, the second since the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, coincide with political negotiations between the Syrian government  and the opposition through the UN-led Geneva track and the Russia-, Turkey-, and Iran-sponsored Astana track. 

Although the Assad regime has been involved in the negotiations process and subsequently the Constitutional Committee to draft a new constitution, “it has never been interested in a political solution,” President of the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Naser al-Hariri, told Syria Direct. He accused the regime of “seeking to eliminate the political solution by every means, by continuing its military practices, the only thing it and its allies recognize.” 

The illegitimacy of the upcoming electoral process is not limited to its disenfranchisement of the Syrian people, according to Hariri, but also “the regime’s crimes, its long track record of human rights violations, use of chemical weapons and others.” 

The National Coalition, the highest opposition body, is working to “launch a campaign in partnership with revolutionary organizations and forces to confront the regime” and is communicating “with a number of international parties to exert real pressure pushing the regime towards a political solution,” he said. 

Al-Hariri considers the international community a participant in “reenacting this miserable farce, because the regime has not been subjected to any real pressure or challenge preventing it from holding the elections.” He stressed that “holding the elections is an offense to democracy and legitimacy.” 

It is the duty of the UN and the international community, then, to “take a firm stance towards the Syrian crisis that has been ongoing for 10 years,” said opposition figure George Sabra. “Today, the ball of the political solution is in their court.”

While “the regime’s insistence on holding elections is a sign there is no political solution,” said Sabra, continuing these elections means “continuing the Russian and Iranian occupation of Syria through a war criminal installed by the Russian military machine and marketed as a head of state.” 

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

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