The April 22-23, 2007 parliamentary elections in Syria were held amid reports of electoral fraud.[i] In the Al-Rakka district in the east of the country, this even led to violent demonstrations, with over 530 citizens arrested by the Syrian security services.[ii] In addition, numerous reports from opposition sources claimed that the Syrian regime had rigged "ghost lists" in some districts, i.e., lists of supposedly independent candidates who were, in fact, affiliated with the regime.[iii]
The election results, as announced by the Syrian interior minister on April 26, 2007, sparked fierce protest on the part of the Syrian opposition, which called on the international community and on Arab and international organizations not to recognize the new Syrian parliament and its decisions.
The Syrian government press joined the criticism, emphasizing that the voter turnout would have been higher had the Syrian parliament been more effective in performing its functions. The articles expressed the hope that the new parliament would not disappoint the Syrian citizens as its predecessors had.
How Many Candidates and Elected MPs?
In the weeks prior to the elections, Syrian government papers gave the number of candidates running for parliament at about 9,770. However, as the elections drew near, the number of candidates dropped considerably, and on the day of the elections themselves it was reported at less than 2,500.[iv]
Furthermore, the internal makeup of the 250-member parliament (that is, the number of seats reserved for the government-affiliated parties versus the number reserved for "independent" candidates) remained unclear both before and after the elections. Ten days before the elections, the Syrian government press announced that the number of seats reserved for the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF) would increase this year from 167 to 170, thus reducing the number of seats open to "independent" candidates from 83 to 80. However, at the press conference presenting the results of the elections, the Syrian interior minister announced that the NPF had won 172 of the parliament seats, with only 78 left for independent candidates. In other words, the Syrian regime had increased the number of seats reserved for its representatives even further than had been announced prior to the elections.
On April 29, however, the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra reported that the figures given at the press conference had been incorrect, and that the number of FTP candidates in parliament was indeed 170 rather than 172, while the number of independent candidates was 80.[v]
Syrian Opposition Calls on International Community Not to Recognize Election Results
The Syrian opposition, which had boycotted the elections, protested the election results and the manner in which they had been held, and called upon the Western public to draw its own conclusions as to the nature of the Syrian parliament. Some Syrian oppositionists even called on the West not to recognize the Syrian parliament and its decisions.
Damascus Declaration in Appeal to International Organizations: "Judge for Yourself the Quality of the Elections in [Syria], and the Nature of [Its] Parliament"
The Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change[vi] sent an open letter to the U.N., the E.U., the Arab League, and Arab and Western judicial organizations presenting "clarifications regarding the Syrian parliamentary elections" and the circumstances in which they were held. The letter points out that the Syrian constitution establishes the Ba'th party as the ruling party in Syria and thus predetermines election results. It further states that the constitution divests the parliament of its legislative powers, placing them in the hands of the president, and even denies the parliament any ability to hold the government accountable. "This constitutional reality," it says, "renders meaningless the Syrian parliament's [designation] as a legislative power and as a [body] representing the will of the people. The Syrian parliament is a nominal body that has no legislative or supervisory function, but is [merely] an appendage of the executive branch. Its function is to [automatically ratify] the laws and decrees issued by the president. This puts into question the very merit of the election process, and causes the [Syrian] citizen to doubt its effectiveness."
The letter adds that the Emergency Law has been in place in Syria since 1963, as along with other laws that deny citizens freedom of expression and action while permitting torture, arbitrary arrests, and the holding of detainees for years without trial.
It further states that the government's administrative and security apparatuses control every aspect of the elections, from the approval of the candidates and the supervision of their campaigns to the management of the vote-counting process: "Not only is the voter subjected to a campaign of intimidation and coercion; elections are also held without any monitoring by the judicial system or by civilian bodies – local, Arab or international... These [measures] have always ensured the ruling party two-thirds of the seats in parliament, in order to guarantee [parliamentary] support for the political and economic decisions of the executive branch..."
The letter ends with an appeal to international organizations: "In light of [the above] – which is only part of the picture – judge for yourself the quality of elections in our country, and the nature of the [Syrian] parliament... Imagine what difficulties we face when all doors are closed to any [possibility of] democratic change."[vii]
"The Syrian People Has Turned Its Back on the Elections Charade"
A second statement issued by the Damascus Declaration described various aspects of the recent elections which compromised their validity: "[The regime] interfered with the election of independent [candidates] by creating 'ghost lists,' brought pressure on candidates, [prevented the candidates] from distributing [their] election platforms, exerted pressure on civil servants and on students living on the campuses – even threatening to expel them from the university unless they voted [for the NPF] – barred the candidates' observers from the voting booths, and [interfered with] the vote-counting [process].
"[This proves] that Syrian [citizens] are justified in their attitude towards this elections charade, which the regime has been carrying out for decades, over and over again. By turning its back on this charade... the Syrian people has validated the position of the national democratic opposition, which boycotted these nominal elections and called for a serious reexamination of the overall political and legal situation in the country. The [existing] situation perpetuates the control and the hegemony of the oppressive and corrupt [Syrian] regime..."[viii]
Mamoun Al-Humsi Calls on Western Parliaments Not to Recognize the Syrian Parliament and Its Decisions
Syrian oppositionist and former parliament member Mamoun Al-Humsi published a statement calling on the European and American parliaments not to recognize the Syrian parliament and its decisions. "The Syrian people," he stated, "has once again taken a clear stand, expressing its anger over the reality in which it [must] live, the suffering [it must endure] due to the policies and conduct of the dictatorial [Syrian] regime, and its [inability] to express any opinion in the climate of ever-escalating intimidation and violence. [The regime] violates the [principles of the] constitution, breaks the law, and abandons the homeland. By means of these [recent] elections, it meant crush every spark of hope [still left to] the people...
"There is no other parliament in the world today in which two-thirds of the members are appointed without elections... The rest are selected by the intelligence [services] and have no election platform, [while others] are removed by force and people who demand the truth are eliminated [from the political scene] and imprisoned.
Al-Humsi stated that, in eight districts, the regime had prevented the participation of Christian candidates, so that the parliament includes only 16 Christians, 13 of them from the NPF. He added that the arrest of publicist Michel Kilo and the sentencing of human right activist Anwar Al-Bouni [at this time] were not incidental, but were meant to convey "a message of hatred and vengefulness aimed at the Christian [population].[ix]
"The results of the elections," he said, "as presented by the interior minister, are faked. The foreign media witnessed the boycotting of the elections by the Syrian people... The voter turnout was [no more than] 6-10 percent. That was the true voter turnout. The boycotting of the elections by the public reflects its refusal to be represented by this regime...
"The Syrian people calls on all the European and American parliaments to take a clear stand regarding these elections, and not to recognize this parliament and its decisions – the worst of which was its election of the [Syrian] president [by a majority] of 99.9%. [The Syrian people also calls on the international community] to demand a new election, held in accordance with the [Syrian] constitution and international standards, and subject to international monitoring. This [should] follow the release of the political prisoners..." [x]
In an interview for the reformist website www.aafaq.org, Al-Humsi said that the Syrian parliamentary elections "were a disappointment. Every time the [Syrian] people expects an improvement or reforms, the situation [actually] deteriorates and the people are disappointed. A new phenomenon in these elections was the overt and flagrant interference of the security [apparatuses] and the exclusion of Christian [candidates, especially] the independent ones, as well as Kurdish [representatives]..."[xi]
Akram Al-Bouni: "Even the Independent MPs Are [Affiliated With] the Regime"
Columnist and journalist Akram Al-Bouni, brother of human rights activist Anwar Al-Bouni, wrote on the reformist website www.metransparent: "The parliamentary elections took place as usual... without any surprises or [unexpected] developments, and without producing new results.... [They] brought no change in terms of the composition [of parliament] or the low voter turnout. [In fact,] anybody with eyes in his head could see that the voter turnout was lower than ever this time: 10% at best.
"After the Ba'th party and its allies reserve most of the parliament seats [for themselves]... the independent candidates [are allowed to] compete for the remaining seats in a 'democratic' [process]. [However], this process is also open to the ruling party and the rest of the NPF [parties], which have the 'natural' right to participate in it, and thus to compete for the [independent] seats [in addition to those already reserved for them]. They insert their supporters and the people loyal to them into the [independent candidate lists], and give them special support, openly or in secret, thus enabling them to take over most of the parliament seats reserved for independents. This raises the number MPs who are representatives [of the regime]... to almost 90%..."
Al-Bouni stated that the authorities ensured the victory of their rigged "independent" lists by forcing voters to remove the names of true independents. Observers on behalf of the independent candidates, he added, were denied entrance to the voting booths and thus prevented from monitoring the elections.
"The Syrian parliamentary elections," Al-Bouni concluded, "were conducted as though they had nothing to do with the citizens. [The citizens in fact] know full well that there is no point in hoping that the parliament will suddenly become strong and effective instead of weak and ineffectual..."[xii]
Syrian Human Rights Organization: The Elections Were an Undemocratic and Illegal Farce
A statement published by the Syrian Human Rights Organization criticized the Elections Law, and stressed that proper elections require a sound democratic and legal basis, a monitoring body, and an authority to appeal to in the event of violations or fraud. The statement pointed out that none of these measures exist in Syria, and that consequently, "the [recent] elections... were illegal and lacked any democratic or judicial basis. [In fact,] they can be characterized as an undemocratic farce! The people naturally avoided... coming to the voting booths, which [completely] strips the elections of any legitimacy...
"The security apparatuses selected independent candidates loyal to them and imposed them [on the people. These candidates took the place] of the democratic opposition party, which boycotted the elections. 'Ghost lists' were published in many districts (Aleppo, Al-Rakka, Deir Al-Zor, and Al-Hasakah), and [the regime] did not permit any legal authority, NGO or human rights organization to monitor the elections...
"The Syrian human rights organization maintains that the elections were false and illegal, and do not reflect the spirit and the will of the people. They will lead the country to a tribal, feudal and sectarian mentality, and to the loss of all national unity. The organization holds the government responsible for all the offenses against the homeland, the state and the citizen, and demands that it work towards political reform, the granting of public freedoms, and the establishment of an independent judiciary authority that will be fully responsible for [directing] the election process.
"[The organization calls on the Syrian government] to allow the parliament to fulfill its function of monitoring the executive branch... and to let the Syrian civil society committees and human rights organizations monitor the general elections – for only thus will they be elections in the legal and legitimate sense of the word.
"The organization emphasizes [the need] to hold new elections as soon as possible and in accordance with [accepted] legal principles, and to let the Syrian people elect its representatives freely and independently, [for this] will benefit both the citizen and the homeland."[xiii]
The Syrian Government Press Joins the Opposition's Criticism
Even before the elections, the Syrian government press took part in the harsh public criticism that reflected the feelings of Syrian society regarding the elections and the functioning of the parliament. In the weeks prior to the elections, it published dozens of articles attacking the candidates and the parliament's performance.
After the elections, the government press continued to publish critical articles, stating that the citizens have lost faith in the parliament because the latter was not fulfilling its role and was failing to look after the citizen's interests. The articles expressed a hope that the newly elected MPs would not forget their promises to their voters, as they are wont to do.
Voter Turnout Would Have Been Higher Had the Parliament Functioned Properly
An article in the government daily Teshreen stated: "Now that the elections have ended and the results have been published... a new and completely different phase begins: the phase of restoring the role of the legislative branch in the life of the citizens, who have lost their faith in the parliament many times over. [This happened] for one very simple reason: When the citizen needed the parliament, he did not find the parliament at his side!!
"That is why voter turnout was [only] 56%. It would have been much higher had the previous parliament done its job and dealt with numerous issues having to do with the citizen's life and day-to-day concerns. The 'powerful' speeches of the previous MPs did nothing to change the reality [in the country], [for instance] the sharp rise in the price of goods and raw materials. On the contrary, they only deepened the citizens' conviction that the MPs are totally incapable of bringing about any change, while the government and the shapers of policy are the ones pulling all the ropes!!! When the [economic] crisis began, you would have expected [the MPs] to demand accountability from the government and to bring a vote of non-confidence against one of its members. Had they done so, voter turnout would have risen to unprecedented levels. But unfortunately, the parliament preferred to remain silent...
"[We hope that] in the new parliament... there will be no room for sluggish MPs like those familiar to us from previous parliaments. We want [the parliament] to take on a new role, with every MP fulfilling his responsibilities and his duties to the citizen... We want them to carry out their tasks in a manner befitting our country and our citizens."[xiv]
We Hope that the New MPs Will Not Forget Their Promises to the Voters
Another Teshreen article stated: "... The parliament has a twofold function. Its first function is to monitor the performance of the government and the state institutions, and its second is one of legislation: formulating laws, approving them, and amending them according to developments and the interests of society. The MPs' [statements] contain no calls for genuine monitoring of the state institutions, for accountability, and for supervision of the government's projects...
"The new MPs must formulate a work plan to implement the projects that they promised to carry out... They must not sit there in front of the TV cameras without dealing with the concerns of the voters, whom they tend to remember only when election season comes around... We can only repeat our hope that the new MPs will not forget their promises to the voters..."[xv]
Cartoons from Syrian Press
Criticism of the parliament, and of the elections and their results, was also reflected in cartoons like following, which shows a Syrian citizen in the voting booth being spied on by TV cameras and by representatives of the regime.
Baladuna (Syria), April 23, 2007.
*H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI.
[i] On the parliamentary election in Syria, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 345, "Criticism of the Upcoming Parliamentary Elections in the Official Syrian Press and Among the Syrian Opposition," April 20, 2007, Israel's High Court of Justice on the War Against Terrorism.
[ii] Akhbar Al-Sharq website (London), April 26, 2007.
[iii] The Syrian Information Minister Muhsin Bilal denied the reports of election fraud and of pressure exerted on citizens to vote for the National Progressive Front. (Akhbar Al-Sharq, London, April 25, 2007).
[iv] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), April 23, 2007, Al-Thawra (Syria), April 23, 2007, SANA (Syria), April 1, 2007.
[v] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 11, 2007, April 29, 2007; SANA (Syria), April 26, 2007. SANA, Syria's official news agency, likewise reported on April 26 that the NPF had won 172 seats in parliament, and on the next day reported only 170 NPF seats.
[vi] In October 2005, an alliance among Syrian parties, forces, and oppositionists signed the "Damascus Declaration for National Democratic Change." The document stresses the need for democratic change in Syria and for the end of the military regime that has controlled the Syrian people for over 30 years. The declaration calls, inter alia, for the establishment of a democratic government in Syria, the elimination of the Emergency Law, the release of all political prisoners, and a solution to the Kurdish problem. The signatories included the Committees for Reviving Civil Society, the Kurdish Democratic Front in Syria, the National Democratic Union in Syria, the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
[vii] The Damascus Declaration website, http://www.damdec.org/preview.php?id=1282&kind=mid, April 30, 2007.
[viii] Akhbar Al-Sharq website (London), April 27, 2007.
[ix] Anwar Al-Bouni was sentenced on April 24, 2007 to five years in prison.
[xii] http://metransparent.com/texts/akram_bunni_syrian_elections.htm, April 26, 2007.
[xiii] Akhbar Al-Sharq (London), April 24, 2007.
[xiv] Teshreen (Syria), April 30, 2007.
[xv] Teshreen (Syria), May 8, 2007.