News / Middle East

Losing Election Not an Option for Syrian President

A Syrian national living in Beirut holds a ballot paper with pictures of the three presidential candidates, (from L-R) Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, Hassan Abdallah al-Nouri and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, as she casts her vote ahead of the June 3 presidential election at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze, east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 28, 2014.
A Syrian national living in Beirut holds a ballot paper with pictures of the three presidential candidates, (from L-R) Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, Hassan Abdallah al-Nouri and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, as she casts her vote ahead of the June 3 presidential election at the Syrian Embassy in Yarze, east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 28, 2014.
Cecily Hilleary
As Syrians go to the polls this week amid civil war, the presidential victor is all but assured: Bashar al-Assad.

So why bother holding an election at all?

Analysts say Assad has more to gain than votes. He is trying to display political solidarity to the world and to ignore the apolitical transition that the West has called for.

Watch related video report by VOA's Elizabeth Arrott

Syria’s Assad Set to Win Another Term as War Ragesi
Elizabeth Arrott
June 02, 2014 7:23 PM
Syrians vote Tuesday in an election set to secure President Bashar al-Assad a third term in office. VOA’s Elizabeth Arrott has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Narrowing the competition

The Syrian regime has taken several steps to ensure that the election works in Assad’s favor.
Ayman Abdel NourAyman Abdel Nour
Ayman Abdel Nour
Ayman Abdel Nour
In March, parliament approved a new election law which allows, for the first time, multiple candidates to run for office. ​“But the law puts conditions on persons who would like to become president,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, editor-in-chief at and president of the nonprofit group,Syrian Christians for Peace

Only those who resided continuously in Syria for a decade prior to being nominated were allowed to run. This effectively eliminated the opposition in exile.

The law further stipulates that candidates be at least 40 years old, born to Syrian citizens, married to Syrian citizens and possess clean criminal records—requirements that further narrow the playing field.

“Those conditions mean that only a few people inside Syria who are totally loyal to Bashar Al-Assad,” Abdel Nour said. “So basically, he is running against himself and his entourage.”

Twenty-four candidates registered to run by the May 1 deadline. But the regime only designated two as eligible to enter the race: Parliamentarian Maher Al-Hajjar, a member of Assad’s Baath Party, and businessman Hassan Al-Nouri, a member of the opposition deemed “patriotic” to Syria.

Narrowing voter eligibility

Another step in staging the election, said Abdel Nour, is restricting who will be allowed to cast a ballot.

“If you are outside the country, you need to prove that you left Syria legally and you have a stamp on your passport,” he said. “You must also have a valid passport, which millions of Syrians don’t have—including me, my family and all of the opposition.”

If Syrians in exile want to vote, they must also have legal residency wherever they are living, which means, according to Abdel Nour, that 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, Kurdistan and Lebanon will have no say in the election.

Syrian embassies in Amman, Beirut and other capitals opened their doors Wednesday for eligible Syrians to cast early votes.
Hart UhlHart Uhl
Hart Uhl
Hart Uhl

Hart Uhl, Program Director at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies told VOA that crowds of voters created traffic jams in the streets of Beirut, but that voter turnout was not as large as Syrian authorities indicated.

“At least one quarter of the population living in Lebanon is now Syrian,” Uhl said, “equating to well over a million. To even think that all eligible voters would be able to cast their vote at a single polling station, the Syrian Embassy, is beyond absurd.

"The Syrian government is interested in only the appearance of mass support - having only three or four ballot boxes to receive votes at any given time creates quite a queue and accomplishes this nicely.”

Millions inside Syria will be deterred from voting by civil war. Voting will be held only in government-held areas, and it is unlikely that voters in insurgent-held areas would cross dangerous front lines and risk detention or worse.

Cementing power

Holding this kind of an election may not give a strongman political legitimacy, but experts say it will cement Assad’s political stranglehold over Syria.
Joshua StacherJoshua Stacher
Joshua Stacher
Joshua Stacher
“Basically a sham election is an internal mechanism for ordering and reconsolidating power,” said Joshua Stacher,  an assistant professor of political science at Kent State University and author of Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria.

“It allows for the constituent parts of the regime--political parties, security services and local strongmen in areas outside the capital--to reaffirm their solidarity with President Al-Assad,” he said. “And it also allows them to line up and get patronage.”

In addition, Stacher said, an autocratic election sends an important message to Syrian society:

It says: “We can fight a civil war for three years, we can rig an election in the middle of it, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Do you really think you can overthrow us?’” Sacher said.

Gauging loyalty
Bruce Bueno de MesquitaBruce Bueno de Mesquita
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a New York University political scientist and author of The Dictator’s Handbook, said staged elections also provide leaders very useful information about who is loyal—and who is not.
“Dictators get to see things like what turnout was like in different parts of the country, what was the vote distribution in different parts of the country—that is, the actual vote distribution, as opposed to whatever may get reported outwards as one of the ways of rigging it,” Bueno de Mesquita said.  “They also get to find out which parts of the country stayed home, that is, aren’t supportive, and which turned out to vote and are supportive.”

With that information, dictators can then direct resources disproportionately to those segments of the population that give them the most support, he added.

“It is a mechanism for the leadership to find out who he wants to reward and who he wants to punish, and this, in turn, gets people who don’t support the leadership to turn out and vote for them, out of fear of the retribution,” Bueno de Mesquita said.

Impact on crisis

But most experts say that the election isn’t likely to quell the civil war, which after three years has claimed tens of thousands of lives and left millions displaced.

“This so-called election is not going to solve the Syrian civil conflict and it’s not going to stem the flow of internally and externally displaced people,” Kent State’s Sacher said.  “It’s a spectacle designed to encapsulate or regain control over a narrative, even if only temporarily.”

Nor does it matter to Assad that it will further isolate Syria from the West.

“Assad’s not isolated.  Iran supports him.  Hezbollah supports him and even the civilian apparatus in Lebanon,” Stacher said. “And there are plenty of people making money off this war now in Iraq, in Turkey and in Lebanon.”

War economies tend to keep conflicts going, Sacher said.

“And right now,” he noted, “we’re in a full-fledged war economy.”

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Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
June 02, 2014 3:16 PM
To Ali Baba
If you think the Butcher Assad and his thugs are so wonderful, why don't you take him to your country and you'll see what he will do to you and your family. Zip it up, because you're so ignorant.

by: ali baba from: new york
June 02, 2014 1:01 PM
Bashar EL Assad is the best president to Syria. He proof that he is far better from the rebel whom they want destroy the country for radical Islam. Syria was peaceful country until the rebel get the help from Arab country. these rebel kill Christian. They forced most of the country population to flee. The story of chemical weapon is fake and the reason to created is to let USA to get involve . The rebel will turn Syria to another Afghanistan and same weapons that given to them they are going to use to kill American soldiers. wake up America ,no deal with radical Muslim. it is the mistake happen in Libya and should not repeated in Syria
In Response

by: meanbill from: USA
June 02, 2014 8:52 PM
Ali, Assad was the best President of all the Islamic countries, and Syria was all inclusive to all religions, and peoples, and all religions were free to practice their religions there -- and all people were free to live there... The US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey wanted Assad to go, (for what ever reasons these countries have in common), only the devil knows?

by: Anonymous
June 02, 2014 12:38 PM
Most Syrians want assad held accountable for his thousands and thousands of murders. He has murdered more innocent unarmed men, women and children (non-combative casualties) than anyone else in Syria. He has also destroyed Syria and plunged it backwards 30 years. He is not allowing food and aid to people in need, and that itself is a crime.

Someone who has committed the crimes assad has committed should not be allowed to be a part of any election anywhere in the world. Instead they should serve their sentence for crimes committed, then afterwards if they wish to run they should. This would mean assad would never be able to run for any elections because he would be sentenced for all of his crimes. The number of crimes committed by assad make him the largest murderer. This is not how you win an election by being the biggest killer trying to intimidate the people. Instead it is a crime. The International Criminal Court has wanted to investigate assad and his crimes however "Putin" and China Vetoed it. What a disgrace, an investigation of assad would be the best thing in the world. If assad is innocent then he should be cleared for any wrongdoing right? If found guilty (likely) then he would have a severe punishment.

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