Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 387, 2 June 2021

Syria: No surprises in the election, as Bashar al-Assad returns
Jeshil Samuel J

In the news
On 26 May, Syria conducted its Presidential election despite heavy criticism and condemnation from the international community. Syrian ex-pats and refugees were allowed to vote a week earlier in Syrian embassies. 

On 27 May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was re-elected as President for the fourth time. He has been in power since 2000 and will hold office for the next seven years. Russia's President, Iran's President, Oman's Sultan and Hezbollah leaders congratulated President Assad on his victory.

Earlier on 3 May, Syria's constitutional court had selected two opponents to stand against President Assad in the elections. From 51 candidates, the court approved President Assad, deputy Cabinet Minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah, and the head of the National Democratic Front (NDF), Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, to contest in the presidential elections.

Issues at large
First, the election process. This is the second election to be conducted since the Arab Springs movement swept the country in 2011. With 18 million Syrians eligible to vote in the presidential elections, there was a turnout of 78.6 per cent (nearly 14 million voters). The elections lasted for 17 hours in 12,000 polling stations around the country with no independent monitors. However, delegates from Iran, Russia and Belarus were reported to be present during the elections to monitor it. The head of the Syrian parliament, Hammouda Sabbagh, announced the results of the elections on 27 May. According to the results, President Assad had garnered 95.1 per cent of the total votes, establishing his presidency for the fourth time. The UN has not recognized the elections since the government did not adhere to the UN mandates set for elections.

Second, the major issues with the elections. The legitimacy of the elections was questioned by many as it did not follow the UN Security Council resolution 2254, which was unanimously passed in 2015. The recent election was dubbed as a sham by the US, UK, Germany, France and Italy when it was announced in April. Voters within Syria and outside faced condemnation for participating in the elections. Syrian ex-pats and refugees in Lebanon were pelted with stones and beaten with sticks on the way to vote in Beirut. Students in Syria were forced to cast their votes by their universities with the threat of either being expelled or failed if they did not vote. Nearly eight million displaced citizens living in the rebel-controlled North-Western and North-Eastern parts of Syria did not cast their votes. The Syrian Democratic Council in its statement said: "We will not be part of the presidential election process and we will not participate in it."

Third, the weak opposition. Both the candidates selected by the government were not well known and did not have the same media coverage and presence as Assad. Abdallah Saloum won 1.5 per cent of the votes and Ahmed Marei of the NDF won 3.3 per cent. The NDF headed by Ahmed Marei is a small state-endorsed opposition party that has long been criticized for being an extension of the government. 

In perspective
Despite the international backlash, the elections have confirmed Assad's reign for the next seven years. The legal and constitutional framework of Syria also favours Assad and his regime. The country is in desperate need of a strong and stable government that would fix the economic depression and social unrest (all of which Assad promised to do). Though it might not be the best option, a strongman like President Assad could bring much-needed stability.

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