May 1, 2014
By Alex Simon, Kristen Gillespie and Mohammad al-Haj Ali
AMMAN: The Syrian regime launched a major publicity campaign this week to promote June’s presidential elections as free and fair while the opposition derided the move as a comical farce with tragic consequences for what they say is a war without end.
President Bashar al-Assad officially announced his candidacy this week to run again for a seven-year presidential term in the first contested elections in Syria’s history. A total of 23 Syrians have applied to run, state media agency SANA reported on Thursday, the deadline for prospective candidates.
Opposition activists inside and outside Syria condemned the elections, which have made no mention of the fact that large swaths of Syria’s north and east lie outside Assad’s control, as a distraction from a deadly campaign against Syrian civilians.
Unilateral electionst that do not include the opposition will only harden both sides, says Rima Fleihan, one of Syria’s most well-known playwrights and an early, vocal opponent of the Assad regime after protests began in March 2011.
“The elections will close the door for a political solution and will expand the war,” Fleihan said.
“We can’t talk about elections without providing far-reaching solutions to what is happening in Syria now.”
The elections are a “joke,” says Syrian-Kurdish journalist Masoud Ako, pointing to the deaths of 130,000 Syrian, the majority at the hands of government forces, over the past three years.
“A president of what?” Ako asked, adding that “there is no legitimacy for a killer.”
Regime talking points
As Assad announced his candidacy, the regime’s media machine and its allies immediately launched a widespread media campaign focused on engaging citizens, with no mention of the war.
“Syria’s President al-Assad calls on supporters of presidential candidates to show awareness and go to ballot boxes,” read a tweet from Damascus’s official news agency after Assad announced his candidacy.
“Elections are a right, a duty for every citizen,” says Syrian television star Wael Sharf in a recent promotional video aired by the pro-Assad Sama news network.
“This is the meaning of true freedom, and this is how we exercise that freedom to the utmost,” Sharf continues, wearing a jacket emblazoned with the Syrian flag on each shoulder. “This is how I understand elections, and this is how every Syrian citizen who loves Syria understands elections.”
The advertisement featuring Sharf—known to Syrians as Abu al-Azz on the hugely popular Syrian soap opera Bab al-Hara—is one installment in a seven-part series entitled “Syria votes,” in which well-known Syrian actors stress Syrians’ civic responsibility to participate in the coming elections.
The videos—produced by Sama, which is privately owned but widely considered an extension of state news—contain no overt reference to incumbent President Bashar al-Assad, but were released a day before Assad stepped forward as a candidate for Syria’s June elections.
Another video broadcast Tuesday by pro-Assad network al-Ikhbaria shows crowds of people demonstrating in Hama, Aleppo and Outer Damascus to demonstrate “support for the army and the worthiness of the presidential elections.”
Theater of the absurd
The June 3rd elections will be the third time Assad has run, the previous two times unopposed. But the possible addition of other candidates alone does not constitute democracy, activists say.
“These are just puppets in this charade,” said prominent Damascus-based activist Susan Ahmad. “If the regime hadn’t asked them to nominate themselves, they wouldn’t have.”
“Someone dared to nominate himself in 2007, and nobody knows his fate,” Ahmad said. “Of course these new candidates must have gotten the green light from the regime.”
“I’ve never heard of them in my life,” said Massoud Akko, a 37-year-old Kurdish-Syrian journalist based in Norway, when asked about the new candidates.
“There’s no doubt that Bashar will win—even the other candidates won’t dare to vote for themselves,” Akko said.
A cartoon circulating on opposition sites shows Bashar al-Assad saying “Elect me” as two other candidates point at Assad, saying, “elect him.”
New election laws
Despite Damascus’s media campaign touting the elections’ democratic value, the Syrian government has also passed measures seemingly intended to ensure that Assad will not face real competition.
A draft elections law announced last month excluded most prominent oppositionists from challenging Assad in the coming elections, requiring that any candidate “have maintained continuous, permanent residence in the Syrian Arab Republic for a period of no less than 10 years,” according to SANA.
Parliamentarian Maher abd al-Hafiz al-Hajjar became the first candidate to nominate himself on April 23. The same day, a Facebook page was created in his name with a profile picture showing al-Hajjar standing in front of a photo of Bashar al-Assad.
The essence of dictatorial regimes is the same, says Abdulrahman al-Bara, 36, a researcher for a Syrian thinktank in Amman. Such regimes use propaganda so egregious it becomes comical, he said.
indeed, much of the opposition’s reaction to the elections references candidates as theatrical extras in an orchestrated play, or else a comedy, or a joke, or even some combination of them all.
It is like any other farcical sham in other countries with oppressive regimes,” al-Bara said.
We already know the result, and it’s Bashar al-Assad.”
Raneem Qubatrus contributed reporting.
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