The upcoming Syrian presidential elections will be the scene of an “early silent battle” between Russia and its allies on the one side and the United States and its partners on the other. The elections will be the first to be held after Russia cemented its military presence in the war-torn country and during the first months of Joe Biden’s term as US president. They will also be held amid the significant field developments and the drawing of borders of the three “areas of influence” in Syria. Significantly, they are also being held amid a crippling economic crisis, western economic sanctions and Syria’s political and diplomatic isolation.
Moscow, along with Damascus and Tehran, wants to hold the elections according to the current 2012 constitution and without any reforms that would be introduced in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254. Russia sees the elections as an opportunity to “open a new chapter” with regional and international forces and make them contend with the status quo and the “legitimate government”.
The Syrian Constitutional Committee has held four rounds of talks in Geneva and is set to meet again in late January to discuss the constitution. Other rounds had tackled “national principles”. Damascus has, however, sent a clear message that constitutional reform will not take place before the presidential elections, which are scheduled for mid-2021. Moscow has also backed it with a clearer message that “there is no timeframe” for constitutional reform and that the “elections are a sovereign Syrian affair.”
This means that the no constitutional reform will take place before the end of Bashar Assad’s term in mid-July. The elections will therefore, go ahead according to the 2012 constitution that grants wide privileges to the president, effectively paving the way for Assad’s third term in office.
The constitution also stipulates that any presidential candidate should have resided in Syria for ten consecutive years before running and they should garner the approval of 35 lawmakers.
The National Progressive Front, which includes a coalition of parties led by the ruling Baath, had won 183 out of the 250-seat parliament in the July elections earlier this year, meaning it controls who will run for president.
For Damascus, Moscow and Tehran, constitutional reform will be addressed after 2021, or rather when Assad wins a new seven-year term in office. He is expected to implement reform during the next parliamentary elections, set for 2024, unless he decides to hold them earlier.
A point of contention between Moscow and Damascus is the former’s desire for more candidates to run in the elections. Russia has been gradually testing the waters with various opposition candidates to that end. However, it will face obstacles in this regard, including the reluctance of central figures to run in a “sham election”. Other obstacles are the stipulation that the candidate should have lived in Syria for ten years and the support of 35 MPs.
Moscow’s intentions were clear when a Russian reporter asked Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his visit to Damascus in September if the ten-year condition would be annulled. Damascus, however, stood firm. Late Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said at the time: “The presidential elections will be held on time. As for annulling the ten-year residency condition, that is for the higher electoral commission. In principle, anyone who meets the conditions is eligible to run in the elections.”
Conditions to run in elections are, however, a constitutional affair, not one for the higher electoral commission
Tehran has backed Moallem’s statements. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had in recent days stated that the “Syrian government is legitimate and very cooperative in the political process and constitutional reform.” Moscow, meanwhile, is still searching for the mechanisms to transform the upcoming elections into the beginning of a new chapter of how the West and region deal with Damascus. It is hoping that the new phase would “end Syria’s isolation and pave the way for reconstruction and normalization of political and diplomatic relations.” Key to this is amending the 2012 constitution to “add color” to the elections.
Western countries, meanwhile, are holding calm consultations away from the media to take a united stand on how to deal with the elections. The US wants to “ignore” the polls as it did the parliamentary ones when it stated that it “will not recognize any elections that are not held according to resolution 2254.” The resolution calls for holding elections under the supervision of the UN and participation of Syrians, including those displaced abroad. Washington’s allies are meanwhile divided, with some wanting to ignore the polls, others proposing supporting an opposition candidate and others suggesting setting clear UN-approved standards to recognize any election.
Some countries have tried to persuade UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, to declare a position on the elections. He said that the elections are beyond his jurisdiction that are outlined in resolution 2254. He instead appointed an “elections advisor”, prompting a proposal for the declaration of standards and principles so that the elections can be recognized. The UN will be tasked with announcing them.
France had drafted a “non-paper” that sets the special standards of the polls. The document, a copy of which was obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, said: “Should the elections be free, transparent and neutral, and should they be held in a safe environment whereby all segments of Syrian society, including refugees abroad, take part without impediment, then the upcoming polls can effectively and truly cement stable legitimate institutions in the country.” These institutions are an “integral part of the broader political process in line with resolution 2254.” The elections can also be part of the permanent settlement for the conflict.
The omission of any of these conditions is an opportunity for the Assad regime to restore its false legitimacy in the post-conflict phase and deter refugees abroad from even thinking about returning home.
The document, therefore, set strict conditions for the West to accept the elections. They are:
1- Cementing trust on the ground with the aim of preparing safe and impartial conditions during and after the elections. This will ensure that the electoral process is credible and the people’s rights are guaranteed.
2- Providing strong guarantees that refugees and the displaced will take part in the vote. Some 12 million refugees are displaced in Syria and abroad, so it is very important that they have their voice heard in the elections and that they even be allowed to run.
3- Providing the legal ground for holding electoral reform, including reforming articles 84 and 85 of the constitution and forming an independent UN-supervised panel to review electoral nominations.
4- UN supervision of the elections would provide strict impartiality in the electoral process. To that end, the organization must oversee the entire process, starting with reforming the electoral law, designating electoral roles, the voting, ballot stations and suitable electoral infrastructure.
Western countries did not recognize parliamentary elections held in Syria in 2012, 2016 and 2020 and the presidential elections in 2014. Washington is meanwhile, maintaining its sanctions according to the Caesar Act and is continuing to exert pressure to keep Damascus in political and diplomatic isolation until it begins to implement resolution 2254 and have Iran pull out its militias from Syria among other demands.
The upcoming elections will be the 18th since 1932. The first elections ever held in Syria were the most diverse even though they were held under French mandate. Over 60 nominees ran for president, making them the largest field of candidates to ever run for the presidential elections in any country.
Syrian historians do not give much weight to the 1932 elections because they were held under French rule. They do however, highlight the 1955 elections that witnessed a race between Shukri al-Quwatli and Khalid al-Azm. All other elections after that were either referendums or uncontested affairs.
The diversity and competition of the 1932 race showed just how promising the nascent democracy in Syria was in the early 1930s. It showed just how much it could have prospered were it not for military coups and countercoups that began to plague the country from 1949.