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Thursday, 30 May 2024
Assad, Elections and the Future of Syria
James Denselow

After nearly twenty-one years in power, a decade of which has been spent presiding over the worst conflict in the young country’s history, President Bashar al-Assad faces the electorate this Wednesday for what is widely ridiculed around the world as the shammest of sham elections.

Back in 2000 the young leader was confirmed with 97.29% of the vote, a 2007 referendum on his leadership saw his popularity rise slightly to 97.6% of the vote although again he was running unopposed. In 2014 Assad’s share of the vote plummeted to 92.20% and it is an open question as to whether the leadership in Damascus would want this year’s result to be back up in the high 90s or perhaps show a more humble, contrite President by seeing results dip into the 80s.

Regardless of the exact size of his mandate the elections are of course a formality rather than a genuine crossroads for the country. They are important to a regime that values the illusions of normal institutions despite knowing full well that real power is vested elsewhere. Observers and analysts have described the process as a ‘pledge of loyalty’ and there have already been scenes of Syrians voting in Lebanon being attacked for their troubles.

Whereas upon ascending the throne Bashar was seen as a reformer and his early years saw a brief ‘Damascus Spring’ characterised by less restrictions to free speech and debate, today he rules over only parts of the country and is reliant on foreign powers for his place in the Presidential palace. Whilst the civil war is no longer lapping onto his doors in Damascus the attempt to shift a focus to reconstruction and normalisation has largely failed and the country is now wrapped in a triple crisis of Covid, conflict and economic crisis.

The economic crisis is the most insidious and when combined with the rampant corruption that is endemic in the country it is the recipe for future troubles unforeseen. Schoolteachers complain (anonymously) that the cost of a shawarma is half their monthly salary, queues for petrol snake for miles and the majority (80%) of the country’s population is now mired in poverty.

Such conditions would normally be the backdrop for a political revolution and the emergence of a new leadership that could offer a hopeful vision for the future. Yet looking at the individual faces of those pro-Regime supporters at the organised rallies you can’t help but wonder what future they feel Assad can deliver. Regardless of how much power he has now ceded to his Russian and Iranian allies much of the world cannot seemingly countenance any engagement with Syria under his rule.

The country has of course endured periods of isolation before but never in the aftermath of so many combined crises. In addition to conflict, covid and the economy is the rapid decline of the country’s environment. Agricultural production, in particular strategic crops, has been affected by the severe drought resulting from rainfall levels that barely reached 60 percent of the annual average, and the increase in temperatures of six to seven degrees above the average.

Syria was struggling to sustain its population despite the fact that millions have already fled the country over the last ten years and the climate crisis just makes this even worse. Yet in the spirit of the election food baskets and extra subsidies, not to mention presidential pardons and prisoner releases, will paint a picture of unity and resistance from the perspective of the Assad regime. However, the fact that the elections are proceeding along the current lines is another body blow to the UN led peace efforts. These were once envisaged to deliver a major roadmap to a transitional government or something more politically radical, but now can barely impact on a focused constitutional agenda.

What the elections will do, if nothing else, is remind Syrians, the region and the world of the different routes the country could have gone down rather than the current one that has seen the ill-fated stewardship of the Assad dynasty for over half a century. Confirming another seven years of Bashar al-Assad will tie the country’s fate to a leader who has brought Syrians neither prosperity nor greater freedoms and it will anchor its ability to forge a brighter and more hopeful future ahead.

by: James Denselow

James Denselow,