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Syria's election returns no surprises: Peter Hall reports from Damascus.

WHEN SYRIANS WENT to the ballot box for the parliamentary elections on 22 April they faced a stark choice. Although campaigning was in full swing across the country, with candidates' portraits and slogans lining the streets, few people were expecting much of a contest. As TME went to press, the election had generated a muted response among the seven million possible voters.

After 44 years in power, the ruling Ba'ath party has had an iron grip on the Syrian state and society. Article 8 of the 1973 constitution guarantees the party controls at least 51% of the 250 seats in the People's Assembly, with the remainder shared between members of the National Progressive Front--a coalition of nine parties aligned with the Ba'ath party--and independent figures.

In spite of its impregnable position, the regime was taking no chances. With an eye to the Presidential referendum in the summer and amid reports the US was trying to unsettle the ruling elite and supply funds to opposition candidates, the Ba'ath party cut off the opposition's air supply and promoted a populist agenda with promises to reduce corruption and further liberalise the economy.

"The government knows it will win the election, but it wants to win it convincingly and without facing criticism from the opposition," said Fayez Sahra, a member of the Damascus Declaration--Syria's largest domestic opposition group. "We have become marginalised from the electorate."

The opposition largely consists of two groups of disaffected minorities--the Damascus Declaration, which operates in Syria, and the exiled opposition known as the National Salvation Front. Other smaller Kurdish parties and the expelled Muslim Brotherhood retain a network of support around the country, although membership of the Brotherhood is a capital offence in Syria.

The last 12 months witnessed a severe crackdown on activists and illegal groups in Syria. After Michel Kilo, an outspoken journalist, and Anwar Al Bunni, a lawyer who ran an EU-sponsored human rights centre, were arrested in May last year for challenging the government's position vis-a-vis Lebanon, opposition figures have been walking under a falling axe.

The regime's purge on activists like Kilo and Al Bunni, has successfully immobilised opposition groups. At the end of March the Damascus Declaration announced that its members would boycott the parliamentary elections, with many Kurdish parties following suit.

"So long as Article 8 of the Constitution exists, and there is no law to legitimise political parties, no free media and no significant changes to the election law we cannot participate," said Sahra. "We want to show that the election is not free and fair."

In 2005 President Bashar Al Assad strongly hinted that his party would introduce a law to allow political parties into the mainstream and hopes momentarily rose when the government announced a change to the election rules in January. But the landmark law never came. Instead the new decree merely addressed the election budget, curtailing campaign spending to a maximum of 3m SYP ($58,000).

"I do not expect the businessmen who spent millions in the last election campaign to stick to the 3m SYP limit," said Sahra. "Everyone will flout this new law. But maybe the government will use this rule against candidates they do not like."

Last month the People's Assembly also announced new voting methods, with the introduction of special ink and transparent ballot boxes similar to those used in the Iraqi elections in January 2005. "It is typical of the Ba'ath party to make theoretical changes like this. The shape of the election may look different but the sense is the same," added Sahra. "People are very pessimistic about the future. We need a proper change in the election laws and the government did not do this."

According to Ayman Abdul Nour, a reformer from within the Ba'ath party, opposition groups have never had it so tough. He said that the last 12 months have not only been the most testing year for opposition parties under President Assad, but possibly the toughest period they have experienced since the 1980s--when the regime disabled the Muslim Brotherhood with military force. "You cannot ask the opposition to be powerful when it is under martial law and cannot meet, contact people or hold meetings," he said. "It has no money, no media outlets and it lacks a young, charismatic leader like the President. The intelligence apparatus is also working against the opposition and weakening it."

But opinion is divided on the opposition groups' decision to boycott the election, with activists asking what this would achieve? On the one hand, members of the Damascus Declaration said that by participating they would be legitimising the undemocratic process. "We do not think the boycott is an admission of defeat," said Sahra. "This is a defeat for the government because it has talked about modernisation and reform for the last seven years, and our snub draws attention to these failings."

Members of other groups believe the opposition should have exploited the election for its political purposes. "The Syrian people look to the Damascus Declaration boycott as a resignation letter--a sign that they do not care," said Machal Tammo, a spokesman for the Kurdish Future Party. "People want to know that we are trying to represent their views, however difficult this may be. The Damascus Declaration should be using the election to spread its message. By boycotting it, they are giving the regime a gift."

Tammo's party, which is one of three Kurdish parties that have contested the election, canvassed opinion and claimed that up to 80% of Kurdish voters wanted the party to take part. "We look to this election as a good opportunity," he said. "We are establishing a list to challenge the Ba'ath party candidates in our governorate. The fact that there is an election means there is an opportunity, however small, to spread our message."

He compared the Damascus Declaration's boycott with the actions of Egypt's opposition groups during last month's referendum on controversial amendments to the constitution. "When they (Egypt's opposition groups) boycotted the vote they held rallies and staged sit-ins. The Damascus Declaration is not doing any of this. They are just hiding in their homes," Tammo said. "They reject foreign interference, they reject the election and they reject the idea of protests. So what do they expect to happen? How will change ever take place?"

A further problem concerning the election is turnout. In light of the results of previous elections in Syria there was a real danger the majority of voters would also boycott the election.

Turnout is routinely low in the Middle East and only 20% of the Syrian electorate voted in the last parliamentary election in 2003. "Of the 7m people who are eligible to vote, a few are forced into it because they work for the state, but there is a silent block who deliberately abstain," said Sahra. "I won't be surprised if the turnout is lower than 20% this year." Local Syrians say opposition parties must share the blame for voter apathy, especially among the young. Groups such as the Damascus Declaration are accused of being out of touch with Syrians because their messages are outdated and they talk about issues in the abstract. "They have an ideological agenda not a practical agenda. They talk about democracy and human rights but they do not have a coherent plan for change," said Dr Redwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies.

Similarly, Abdul Nour says opposition groups are particularly detached from the fast growing young population. "The Syrian people are concerned about their prosperity and better incomes. They want a better education and healthcare system. Even the Golan Heights is not the most important issue for the people," he said.

Last year the Syrian authorities banned a number of websites realising the Internet had become a new forum for opposition parties to discuss ideas and galvanise support. But members of the Damascus Declaration admit they are too old to attract young people and their contact with the voters is minimal. "It's understandable why we don't have much support because we're mainly a bunch of old men and we are not familiar with the technologies and language of the young," said Sahra. "The Ba'ath party has also prevented us from having any access to the voters."

In the last four months, there were also reports of US attempts to derail the regime during an important election year. A classified document, which first appeared in Time magazine last December, detailed American plans to nurture members of the fractured opposition, supply funds to at least one Syrian candidate, and run a voter education campaign. But opposition groups made light of this story. "The report is a joke," said Sahra. "The idea that the US will sponsor the opposition is propaganda to show Americans they are trying to help the Syrian opposition. But that's not true. Any Syrian businessman can give us this money."

As the election approached, the opposition faced an awesome test of survival. A growing sense of foreboding engulfed the political class with naysayers arguing that the already fragile base on which opposition groups exist would be obliterated. "By the end of the year there will be no opposition. The young are not members of the Ba'ath party, but the government is working carefully to attract the bourgeois class by giving them better education and work prospects," said Abdul Nour. "It is playing a very clever game. After the elections it will change the faces in government to make it look like it is modernising."

Others held onto the vain hope that a loss of faith in the regime among the electorate would translate into fresh support for the opposition. Whatever the outcome, it remains to be seen whether the opposition can modernise and take the fight to the government in the months ahead. It must prove it has the grit for a long-term fight.
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS
Author:Hall, Peter
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:May 1, 2007
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