European countries have kicked off a drive to approve a document, submitted by France, that rejects “any presidential elections not based on United Nations Security Council resolution 2254.”
Damascus is set to hold the elections in mid-2021 based on the 2012 constitution. President Bashar Assad’s reelection is all but secured. His allies, Moscow and Tehran, already support the elections, with Russia hoping that they will mark a “turning point” that would end Damascus’ isolation. It is hoping that they would pave the way for Arab and European countries to restore diplomatic and political ties with Syria, help in its reconstruction and acknowledge the legitimacy of the polls.
UN envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen was informed that the elections and the proceedings of the Constitutional Committee were not connected. The committee is tasked with drafting a new constitution, which should ideally be ratified after the elections.
There were hopes that the new constitution would have been drafted before the polls so that they would be held according to, but the committee has failed to make any significant progress in five rounds of talks, the last of which took place earlier this year. Pedersen himself acknowledged the failure after the last round, indirectly pinning blame on the regime.
Holding the elections according to the 2012 constitution allows Assad to comfortably win a third seven-year term in office. Nominees need to have continuously resided in Syria for ten years. Their candidacy must also be approved by 35 members of parliament.
Moscow has implied that reforms to these conditions could be approved during the 2024 parliamentary elections. The ruling Baath had swept the 2020 elections, effectively meaning that the fate of any presidential candidate lies in its hands.
No figure has submitted their nomination for the presidential elections, but some media campaigns have started to hit the ground in government-held areas. Reports have said that efforts are underway to reach an understanding with the Kurdish autonomous authority in the region east of the Euphrates to set up polling stations there. The authority controls about a quarter of Syrian territory.
It is unlikely that polling stations will be set up in the northeastern opposition-held Idlib province, the north and neighboring countries hosting refugees, such as Turkey and Jordan, with the exception of Lebanon.
Western countries have criticized Russia for suggesting that the presidential elections and Constitutional Committee talks should be separated, saying that will only harm the political process. Western countries have previously rejected the 2012, 2016 and 2020 parliamentary polls and the 2014 presidential ones.
Rejection of elections
Representatives of European countries have already started to hold meetings to approve the “French document” to take a united stance over the presidential elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat obtained a copy of the document, which calls for reviving the UN mediation that has been inactive for three years. The mediation should breathe new political life and help reinvolve the Syrian people, inside and outside the country, in the political process.
It expressed opposition to attempts by the regime and its allies to declare an end to the crisis by holding “fraudulent” elections in 2021. It slammed the authorities for failing to commit to the political process outlined in resolution 2254 and for failing to directly address the root causes of the crisis.
It expressed concern that the upcoming elections would be held based on a constitution and laws that grant the regime sole power. It warned that the elections would be exploited by the regime and its backers to unilaterally declare an end to the crisis while failing to commit to anything that meets the aspirations of the people. Moreover, it warned that the elections will discourage refugees from returning home.
The document said European countries have felt the direct impact of the Syrian crisis, both on the level of security and with migrants. They are therefore, greatly invested in preventing the political process from veering off its right course. They called for holding transparent elections based on resolution 2254, which will effectively help resolve the crisis, not deepen it.
It is obvious such transparent elections will not be held any time soon, the document lamented.
Any elections that are not held according to the resolution cannot help end the crisis, rather they will only undermine efforts to reach a real sustainable political settlement, continued the document.
It cited Pedersen’s remarks that a political settlement in line with resolution 2254 is not viable without holding free and transparent presidential elections.
The document proposed four working steps: Guaranteeing that refugees inside and outside Syria take part in the voting process; implementing confidence-building measures and finding a neutral and safe environment to hold the polls; preparing the legal conditions to stage the elections; allowing the UN to oversee the voting process and securing the greatest level of impartiality.
Members of the European Union are expected to approve the document when they meet on March 15 to mark the tenth anniversary of the conflict. They are set to push for increasing the UN’s jurisdiction and bolster Arab contribution in the Syrian elections, explaining that the Arabs are a main element in resolving the crisis.
Neighboring countries will be encouraged to cooperate with Pedersen to help stage the elections for Syrian refugees. The Syrian diaspora, civil society and opposition should be supported to allow them to clearly express their demands over the presidential elections. The document suggested that efforts should be launched to hold future elections based on resolution 2254 and in a way that allows expatriates to vote without having to receive prior approval from the official Syrian authorities.
Western-approved elections would follow four rules: Strict guarantees that allow refugees and the displaced to take part in the voting; confidence-building measures that would create a secure and impartial environment for voters; preparing the legal ground for a plurality vote; allowing the UN to oversee the polls to ensure their utmost transparency.
Pedersen has refused to be involved in preparations to hold the presidential elections, saying they were beyond his jurisdiction.