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May 25, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1578

Syria Presidential Elections: While The Regime Calls Them 'The Mother Of All Campaigns' And Falsely Presents Them As Democratic, The Political Opposition Calls Them A Farce And The Armed Opposition Threatens To Target Voters

May 25, 2021 | By O. Peri*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1578

Introduction

Syria's presidential elections, held every seven years, will take place on May 26, 2021.[1] The upcoming elections are based on the constitution passed by the Syrian regime in 2012, which is the first Syrian constitution to allow presidential elections with multiple candidates.[2] Two candidates are running against the incumbent president Bashar Al-Assad. One is 'Abdullah Salloum 'Abdullah, a former minister, member of the Socialist Unionist Party, which holds only two seats in the present parliament. This party is a constituent of the Progressive National Front, a parliamentary bloc led by the ruling Ba'th Party, which has announced its support for Assad in the present elections. The other candidate is Mahmoud Ahmed Merei, member of the Syrian Democratic Front, which operates as a regime-approved opposition group. The participation of Assad's two rivals is widely seen, both inside and outside Syria, as a farce and a mere show of democracy, since their chances of winning are miniscule. 

In the past months the Syrian regime has been energetically encouraging the public to participate  in the elections, which were presented as another campaign against the enemies of the state, if not the most important campaign. The regime touted the elections' ostensibly democratic nature,  stressing that no fewer than 51 individuals had submitted their candidacy to run for president, even though most were unknown figures and some even openly expressed their support for Assad despite submitting their candidacy, and although the vast majority of them were disqualified because they did not meet the official requirements. In order to prevent prominent oppositionists from running against Assad, the 2012 constitution stipulates that candidates must be residents of Syria for at least 10 consecutive years when standing for election, and must be backed by at least 35 members of parliament.[3]

In order to further diminish potential support for Assad's rivals, the Syrian government decreed that Syrian expatriates could only vote abroad if holding a valid passport carrying an exit stamp from Syrian territory. This effectively bars millions of Syrian refugees who fled the country since the beginning of the civil war, most of whom are oppositionists, from voting in the elections.[4] It should also be mentioned that the elections will not be held in parts of Syria controlled by opposition elements, which constitute about a third of the country. Furthermore, the members of the Supreme Constitutional Court, who are tasked with overseeing the election process, are Assad appointees, so that the vetting of his rivals was not necessarily objective.[5] 

In light of all this, and due to the fact that the regime is holding these elections in disregard of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, from 2015 – which calls for elections in Syria to be held under UN supervision and only after the establishment of "a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” and following the drafting of a new constitution[6]  – many countries, among them the U.S. and European states, have expressed opposition to these elections.[7]

The Syrian political opposition likewise opposed the presidential elections, stressing that they lack all legitimacy and calling them a "show" or "farce" whose results are predetermined and which is intended to legitimize the continuation of the Assad dictatorship. The armed opposition, especially in southern Syria, expressed intense opposition to the elections, declaring that it will not permit them to be held and even threatening to attack anyone who tries to vote.


Cartoon shows campaign posters calling on Syrians to "vote"; even Assad's rivals support his election  (Thelevantnews.com, April 25, 2021)

This report reviews the Assad regime's efforts to present the presidential elections as an important and democratic campaign, and reactions among the Syrian opposition to the elections.

Assad Regime Presents Elections As "Another Victory Against The Enemies Of The State" And Falsely Touts Them As Democratic

In the recent months, the Syrian regime mobilized the state and pro-regime media to persuade the public to participate in the elections and to create the impression that they enjoy wide popular support. As the elections approached, Syrian newspapers and news agencies published many articles and announcements stressing their importance for strengthening Syria's sovereignty and touting them as a victory for democracy. The media quoted statements in this spirit from almost every possible Syrian figure, from ministers, MPs and ambassadors to clerics, figures in the private and public sectors, and ordinary citizens on the street.

Syrian press articles stressed that the elections were "another victory, in addition to those achieved by the Syrian Arab Army [in the war]."[8] One article went so far as to describe the elections as "the mother of all campaigns," in which "the ballot boxes are like millions of boxes of ammunition and every ballot is a bullet directed at the enemies of Syria."[9]


Election poster in Syria: "Your vote at the ballot box is a bullet in the chest of the attacker"(Source: twitter.com/aabnour, May 5, 2021)

Numerous articles expressed open support for Bashar Al-Assad, presenting him as "an emblem of the Syrian homeland" and "the defender of Syria and its people and of the Arab principles and values,"[10] while not one article dealt with the two other candidates and not one Syrian element publicly declared support for them.

Furthermore, as election day drew nearer Assad issued several decrees apparently aimed at increasing his popularity amid the difficult living conditions and at improving his international standing. These included a pardon or mitigation of sentence for crimes committed before May 2, 2021, with the exception of political prisoners[11]; a one-time grant for Syrian workers and pensioners;[12] and an exemption from further reserve duty for members of certain sectors in the army, in light of the past and present discontent among Syrians over the long period of military service.[13]

The regime also highlighted the ostensibly democratic character of the elections, for instance by stressing that no fewer than 51 citizens had submitted their candidacy, although most were unknown and some even publicly expressed their support for Assad. A prominent example is 'Abd Al-Hanan Al-Badawi, who announced his candidacy on Facebook on April 22 under the heading, "This Is Democracy, Long Live Assad's Syria."[14] Another would-be candidate, Ahmad 'Abd Al-Ghani, announced his candidacy on Facebook by posting numerous photographs of himself in front of posters of Bashar Al-Assad.[15]



'Abd Al-Hanan Al-Badawi's post   


Ahmad 'Abd Al-Ghani's post

Syrian Opposition: The Elections Will Only Be Legitimate If They Don't Include "War Criminal Bashar Al-Assad"; Whoever Believes That The Presidential Elections Are Democratic – Is Mentally Unstable

The Syrian political opposition expressed its total rejection of the upcoming presidential elections. When the Syrian Parliament announced the opening of candidate registration on April 18, the Syrian National Coalition issued a statement describing the elections as a "show" and a "farce" devoid of legal and political value, and stressed that legitimate elections in Syria would be held only in the absence of "the war criminal Bashar Al-Assad" and in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.[16] Syrian National Coalition head Naser Al-Hariri spoke extensively against the elections on social media and on the media opposed to the regime. In a May 17, 2021 article in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily, he wrote that anyone who believes that the regime and its Russian allies are actually holding a democratic election process the areas under their control is "mentally unstable."[17]


Naser Al-Hariri: "Legitimate elections… will not be [held] with the participation of the war criminal Bashar Al-Assad and under the oversight of the oppressive security apparatuses and the terrorist Iranian militias…" (Twitter.com/Nasr_Hariri, April 26, 2021)

The Syrian Constitutional Committee's co-chair on behalf of the opposition, Hadi Al-Bahra, said in a similar vein that the elections planned by the regime are illegitimate and only prove that it has no intention of playing a positive role in the Syrian political process.[18] 'Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa, head of the Syrian Interim Government, which is close to Turkey, wondered: "What election  are the regime and its allies talking about when half the [Syrian] people are refugees living in exile and in [refugee] camps, and the other half are bending under the yoke [of the Syrian regime] and suffering hunger and poverty[?]… The obvious goal of this farce is to relaunch the dictator who has been isolated for 10 years, while disregarding the suffering of the people."[19]

A campaign against the elections was held on social media, with hashtags like "[Assad] to trial, not to the presidency," "election farce" and "Assad and his elections lack legitimacy." Muhammad Maktabi, a member of the Syrian National Coalition's political bureau, said that the purpose of the campaign was to bring to the attention of the media and the international community the voice of over two thirds of the Syrian people who live outside the areas controlled by the Bashar Al-Assad regime and oppose his remaining in power.[20]

Objection to the elections was also expressed in articles by Syrian oppositionists. Many of them ridiculed the regime's attempts to present the elections as democratic, claiming that their outcome is predetermined and that Assad's so-called rivals are mere puppets who, moreover, support and praise him.[21] Some also expressed despair at the international community's impotence vis-à-vis the Syrian regime and its ongoing disregard of Security Council resolutions pertaining to the Syrian political process. Oppositionists Samira Al-Musalima noted that "the [previous] Syrian presidential elections, on June 3, 2014, went ahead despite the [condemnatory] international statements and even though the Gulf Cooperation Council, the EU and the U.S. all described them as illegitimate…  Assad [then] declared he had won over 88% of the Syrian votes despite the war, the expulsion [of so many Syrians] and the hundreds of thousands of victims. Nobody in the international community took an official stance on that outcome, and the [Syrian regime's] UN representation continue to be recognized to this very day. What happened then is about to repeat itself [now,] in 2021…"[22]

Armed Opposition In Southern Syria: Anyone Voting In The Elections Will Be A Legitimate Target For Attack

Armed opposition operatives on the ground, especially in the Daraa and Al-Suwayda governorates in the south, which are notable strongholds of the armed opposition,[23] likewise expressed their objection to the presidential elections in general and to Assad's participation in them in particular. Graffiti and posters appeared in both governorates with messages such as "Don't vote for the barrel-bomb guy, the pampered Iranian agent," "Families of detainees, voting for the tyrant means death for your sons" and "voting is a mark of shame for you and your children."[24] In Al-Suwayda, posters of Assad were defaced.[25]


Graffiti in Daraa district: "Don't vote for the murderer of children and the Iranian agent [Assad]…" ; "Assad's elections are illegitimate" (Source: enabbaladi.net, May 12, 2021; twitter.com/SyrianCoalition, May 18, 2021)


Defaced poster of Assad in Al-Suwayda (Source: orient-news.net, May 20, 2021)

Abu 'Ali Mahamid, a dignitary from Al-Suwayda, clarified that the opposition to the elections was not just verbal, saying, "We will not allow a single ballot box to be brought in, and we will not accept the outcome of these farcical elections that are far removed from [what is stipulated in] UN Resolution 2254."[26]

Al-Suwayda activists threatened on social media that "anyone promoting the elections of the murderer [Assad], who killed and expelled millions and is still doing so, is a traitor against [our] religion, land, blood and honor, and is therefore a legitimate target for us."[27] A video circulated on social media on May 9 shows masked men calling to boycott the "election farce" and warning that whoever go out to vote will be a target.[28]


Screenshot from the video threatening voters in the elections

The opposition website Tajamu' Ahrar Horan ("Assembly of the Free in Southern Syria"), which  reports on events in Syria's south, posted that the regime had decided to close several polling stations in the Daraa governorate.[29] Other oppositionist websites reported that even Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Druze in Al-Suwayda governorate, who is a known supporter of Assad, had expressed opposition to his remaining in power in light of the situation in Syria.[30] Nurs 'Aziz, a journalist from Al-Suwayda governorate, assessed that turnout in the district will be low, but that this will be meaningless, because the regime will present false figures, as it did in the 2014 elections, when the number of votes counted in the governorate was twice the number of residents entitled to vote.[31] 

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1]  In fact, voting was already held for expatriates at Syrian consulates and embassies on May 20, 2021. 

[2]  Before the passing of this constitution, a referendum was held on a single presidential candidate. The first presidential election, held in June 2014 in the midst of the war, included two candidates in addition to Bashar Al-Assad and officially ended with a landslide victory for him. 

[3]  Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 19, 2021.

[4] Raialyoum.com, April 21, 2021.

[5] Constituteproject.org.

[7] Enabbaladi.net, April 29, 2021; apnews.com, March 19, 2021; europarl.europa.eu, March 11, 2021. It should be noted that France, which declared that the presidential elections in Syria are not legitimate, nevertheless allowed the Syrian embassy in Paris to hold them on May 20.

[8] Teshreen (Syria), April 25, 2021.

[9] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 24, 2021.

[10] Al-Thawra (Syria), April 18, 2021; Al-Watan (Syria), April 27, 2021, May 11, 2021.

[11] Sana.sy, May 2, 2021.

[12] Sana.sy, May 8, 2021.

[14] Facebook.com/profile.php?id=100024096214227, April 22, 2021.

[16] Etilaf.org, April 18, 2021; it should be noted that UN Resolution 2254 does not explicitly state that Assad cannot run for president again.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 17, 2021.

[18] Baladi-news.com, April 25, 2021.

[19] Aa.com.tr/ar, April 19, 2021.

[20] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 10, 2021.

[21] Enabbaladi.net, April 25, 2021; Syria.tv, April 27, 2021.

[22] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), February 1, 2021.

[24] Orient-news.net, March 26, 2021; Facebook.com/HoranFreeMedia, May 12, 2021; Syria.tv, May 17, 2021.

[25] Orient-news.net, May 20, 2021.

[26] Enabbaladi.net, April 25, 2021.

[27] Syria.tv, April 25, 2021.

[28] Facebook.com/HoranFreeMedia, May 10, 2021.

[29] Horanfree.com, May 6, 2021.

[30] Horrya.net, April 13, 2021; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 24, 2021.

[31] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 3, 2021.

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