The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today, we focus on Syria, which holds a controversial presidential election on May 26th, denounced by human rights groups and Western governments alike as a farce with a foregone conclusion.
On May 26th, Syrians are called to vote for the second presidential elections in the country since the outbreak of the civil war. While two other candidates (among the 51 who applied to run for presidency) met the eligibility requirements, the balance of the electoral process appears to be so tipped in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour that neither of them is believed to pose a serious threat. In particular, the condition whereby a presidential candidate must have continuously lived in Syria during the ten years prior to an election has prevented members of the Syrian opposition, currently in exile, from running for office. Meanwhile, since voting will take place in government-controlled areas only, would-be voters living in the last rebel-held strongholds in Idlib and northeast Syria are prevented from expressing their electoral preference. As such, this electoral process stands in stark contrast to UN Resolution 2254, which calls for an inclusive, Syrian-led political process that requires a transitional governing body, a new constitution, and UN-supervised elections. Still, the Geneva peace talks have barely gotten off the ground, raising doubts that Damascus stalled to ensure Assad could win the upcoming election under the country’s current constitution. Unsurprisingly, Western governments have expressed their opposition to the presidential vote in Syria, discrediting it to nothing more than a “sham”, while Russia — Assad’s main supporter — has denounced their criticism as interference in Damascus' domestic affairs.
Experts from the ISPI MED network react to today's presidential election in Syria.
Elections in Syria are politics (just not democratic)
“In democratic terms, the Syrian elections are nonsense. The voting is pure theatre, and Bashar al-Assad will not be President because he wins the election; he will win the election because he’s the President. Still, it’s a mistake to think the elections are meaningless. They matter in other ways, as a mobilizing event. When businessmen, militia chiefs, village elders, and religious leaders put up billboards and sponsor celebrations, it’s their way to pledge allegiance. But it also works the other way around. Syrians get to see the powerbrokers closest to themselves—people they trust, fear, or depend on—line up behind Assad, demonstrating his reach into society. So, it’s politics, just not democratic politics.”
Aron Lund, Researcher, Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI); and Fellow, The Century Foundation
A heavy blow to the Syrian opposition
“After the presidential elections, the main pressing issue is aid authorization in Idlib and North-East Syria. The UNSC resolution on cross-border humanitarian aid expires in July. Russia may exploit the results of the elections to restore normalization with the regime and push the international community to consider it as the only authority allowed to distribute aid – with all the implications this may lead to, given the use of access to aid as a form of warfare. In this regard, Russia will also push for the opening of the M4 highway, following an agreement with Turkey, which will force opposition forces (mainly Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham - HTS), to reach compromises. Within the context of a possible rapprochement with Arab countries, the elections will be a heavy blow to the Syrian opposition, which has failed to organize in the past ten years. Russia may also support a dialogue with the internal opposition after the elections, which may represent an obstacle in the negotiations or push some factions outside of Syria to communicate with the regime in the future.”
Suhail Al-Ghazi, Syrian Researcher and Non-Resident Fellow, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
The conditions to hold free and fair elections in Syria currently do not exist
“The Syrian presidential elections, in the current circumstances, are a mere farce. There can be no free and fair elections held by the same Syrian regime that displaced over half of the Syrian population, killed more than half a million, and detained hundreds of thousands of Syrians. There are several impediments that do not allow all Syrians, especially displaced Syrians, to vote freely or run for office. One of the main impediments is the security conditions. The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity and several human rights organizations have repeatedly documented continuing violence and systematic repression against Syrians in areas controlled by the regime. Hence, prior to any free and fair elections in Syria, there should be constitutional, legal, security, and logistical reforms to ensure the free and fair participation of all Syrians both within and outside Syria. No elections can be held in Syria without a safe environment, which is the ultimate cornerstone of a comprehensive political solution.” Read the full article
Haya Atassi, Head of Public Relations, Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD)
There are little or no incentives for Europe to recognize the Syrian electoral results
“There are two main reasons for the EU and its member states to contest the results of the elections. The first being that there is very little room for electoral competition. The second being that the vote will not take place in many parts of the country. I do not think the Syrian government expects the EU and its member states to recognise the results, so I do not believe it will affect the relations between Brussels and Damascus.
European governments are also aware that most share in the reconstruction will be given to companies politically linked to Assad’s two main allies, Iran and Russia, to pay back their support. Relations with the Syrian government are therefore not the priority and bring much political cost in exchange for little economic advantage. However, there is still room to support Syrian citizens in a country where the percentage of people living below the poverty line is between 83% and 90%. As such, the EU and its member states can support humanitarian organisations that operate in the country to help the Syrian population.”
Matteo Colombo, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; and Junior Researcher, Conflict Research Unit, Clingendael
Besides Russian sponsorship, the elections remain Syrian
“What implication will elections have on Russia’s presence in Syria? Moscow and few others have sponsored these elections and secured Assad’s position ahead of them. It is also thanks to Russia’s support they are being held in the first place and carry few surprises. The point here is not about how highly predictable elections will impact Russia’s stance in Syria (read: in no way), but how Russia’s privileged position has favoured this “achievement” for the regime. Is this an achievement for the Syrians as well? That’s the question we should ask to our Russian friends. As for any “Western” recognition of the elections, the Russian backing undoubtedly has a negative impact. Nonetheless, nobody forgets these elections are Syrian as are the responsibilities for a bleak political landscape.”
Chiara Lovotti, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; and PhD Candidate, University of Bologna