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Sun. June 23, 2024
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The Syrian Elections: Like Father, Like Son
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In February 1999, Hafez al-Assad won the fifth constitutional mandate by 99.99% in a referendum shaped as a presidential election. Hafez al-Assad was the only candidate, with voters asked to approve or reject his candidacy. The state television at the time announced that only 219 Syrians had voted 'no.' Hafez only lived for a year after these elections, bequeathing the presidency and country in 2000 to his son Bashar as if Syria was a monarchy or a family-owned corporation for the Assad family.

In May 2021, Bashar al-Assad won the fourth constitutional mandate by 95.1% in a remake of his father’s electoral farces. The Assad regime claims that some 14 million people voted for him in May 2021. This claim is questionable considering that more than 50 percent of Syrians are currently either living outside the al-Assad's regime’s areas of control or outside Syria as a whole. The number of Syrians in the al-Assad regime’s areas of control, including children and minors, is less than 12.5 million out of 26 million Syrians living outside the regime's territories and as part of the Syrian diaspora.

So where did Assad’s millions of extra votes come from? al-Assad insisted on holding what he considered elections, but the course and results of the election were farcical. Assad's election was recognized only by his close allies, led by Russia and Iran. At the same time, the rest of the international community refused to recognize the legitimacy of what they called the electoral farce. The international community's refusal to recognize al-Assad's re-election results from his regime's failure to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. The resolution sought for Syria to hold fair and free elections under the direct supervision of the United Nations, as a solution to restore peace after the 2011 uprising.

In addition, al-Assad's high winning percentage in the last election does not reflect in any way the deteriorating situation of the national economy or the state of public discontent among a large group of people, including some Assad supporters. The past elections coincided with a time in which the Syrian economy was in a free fall. More than 80% of the Syrian population is below the poverty line, while the country faces skyrocketing levels of inflation as a result of the Lira plunging dramatically in value against the US dollar. Danny Makki, Middle East Institute nonresident scholar, said the economic crisis had led to ‘peak discontent’ even amongst the biggest supporters of al-Assad’s government.

Although the 2021 elections took place after ten years of killing, destruction and displacement that have plagued the Syrian people for demanding reform and freedom, those ten years have not reduced Assad's high winning percentages, except once in the 2014 elections. The 2014 elections were held months after al-Assad's Ghouta chemical massacre, which pressured him to reduce his winning percentage to 88.7%. Standing against al-Assad in the 2021 elections were two obscure candidates: former deputy cabinet minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmud Ahmad Marei. So there's nothing new about the Syrian elections after the 10-years of conflict, except two pictures of puppet candidates on the sidelines that no one had ever known or heard of before May 2021.

But why would al-Assad want to incorporate other candidates in the election process for the first time, after he and his Father were alone in every election for the past five decades? Why would al-Assad bother to hold elections when his victory is already predetermined?

The most apparent reason is that al-Assad is carrying out a desperate attempt to send a message to the international community that he has many supporters and that after these elections, he has become a legitimate regime that can be dealt with internationally as a representative of the Syrian state. These elections are aimed at the West, taking the pattern of Western-style elections in one way or the other to give an 'I am like you' message," Maan Abdul Salam, head of the Syrian think-tank ETANA, told the Reuters news agency.

The tactics of the al-Assad family with regards to elections have remained unchanged for the past 50 years. A public display of democratic ritual masking an autocratic face. The theatrical act of voting for the leader, false praise, displays of the voters’ sacrifice in the form of pricked fingers with the blood that emerges used as fingerprints to be printed on the ballot papers, acts of fraud, falsifying results, and focused media propaganda to portray the process as a fair election. However, in the era of social media, scandal emerged and acts of fraud in Assad’s electoral circus were made visible for the world to see clearly. The fraud that the Syrian voter used to see in his country's polling stations has now become visible to the whole world. But this world is either one that stands neutral and only condemns verbally or one that publicly supports this sitcom. A world that's forgetting a country destroyed by an ophthalmologist turned dictator, who forcibly held on to the presidency with bloody claws, playing a significant part in the deaths of thousands of his own people, arresting half a million, and displacing more than half of the population. In 2021, millions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons are still in tents and refugee camps, while al-Assad supporters' dabka rings (traditional dance) celebrate his false victory over the skulls of the victims and the pains of the oppressed and disadvantaged.


Omar S. Abdellatif is a research assistant and undergraduate fourth year student in the University of Toronto majoring in Political Science and International Relations. Compliance Director at the G20, G7 and BRICS global governance research groups. Co-founder of UN Compliance Research Group. 

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