Syria’s recent parliamentary elections, held on July 19, set a new precedent for the Assad regime, and there were 10 key differences from the previous elections that have been held since they were first introduced by Hafez al-Assad in 1973.
The introduction of primaries
First of all, the July elections saw the introduction of primaries and a two-round election system. Previously, the Baath Party and the other parties that form the National Progressive Front (NPF) had nominated their own candidates, with each branch putting forward names (usually double the number of the seats for the list), from which the Baath central command would then choose candidates for the “national unity list” to run in the general elections. However, this time around Bashar al-Assad thought primaries could serve as a way of testing the popularity and leaning of each candidate in the Baath Party, which has around 2 million members that cover a wide political spectrum. The results of the primaries showed how much popular support each candidate has and who makes up their base: Islamists, leftists, conservatives, etc.
After he used the primaries to map out the political landscape, Assad then annulled them, saying they would only be used as an indicator. The primaries held at the end of June were cancelled on July 2. On July 4 the Baath Party announced the list of candidates for different governorates, inserting the names of people who were not even running previously. It started adding names to its list and changing others without announcing the changes. For each governorate there are two categories: category A for farmers and workers and category B for professionals, intellectuals, and businesspeople. As an example of the secret changes, in Idlib, Basel Karnoub, a Christian candidate, had his name removed from the list by the Baath command and replaced by that of Naasan Abdel Gaffour Hijazi — a change that wasn’t made public until election day, when people saw the revised list. The regime’s justification for the move was that there are no more Christians left in Idlib, so why should they have a representative?
Seats in the Parliament are divided between the Baath Party, other parties, and independents. There were initially 181 seats reserved for the NPF, but two more were subsequently added, for a total of 183, with 166 for the Baath Party and 17 for other parties, while the remaining 67 seats were for independents. However, in the July elections many candidates from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is part of the NPF, ran as independents. For example, the SSNP has candidates in the national unity list, in areas like rural Aleppo, Hama, and Homs, but it also has others elsewhere running as independents. Despite this, the number of candidates running was down significantly and this election saw the lowest ratio of candidates per seat to date: There were a total of 1656 candidates, including 200 women, competing for Parliament’s 250 seats. In the last elections in 2016, by contrast, there were 2649 candidates.
Compulsory voting for state employees — to little effect
Second, this is the first time the army and the police were allowed to vote. Law No. 8 passed in 2016 allowed the military and law enforcement officers to vote as a way of boosting the regime’s tally at the ballot box. Despite compulsory voting among military, police, and government employees at their workplaces, only 10 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to sources on the ground. While the official turnout announced by the minister of justice was 33 percent, some voting stations, especially those located in schools for regular voters (as opposed to state employees), had no turnout at all. That the turnout was this low despite the coercive measures shows that people have no trust in the regime. It also shows that the barrier of fear has been broken. People used to vote for the regime because they did not want to be singled out by the mukhabarat, but that seems to no longer be the case. There was even low turnout in Christian and Alawite areas, signaling an overall dissatisfaction with the regime.
Greater Armenian representation, but exclusion of the Kurds
Third, this is also the first time an Armenian ran on the Baath list, a noteworthy change given that the Baath is an Arab nationalist party. Armenians won a total of three seats in the elections, another first. Lucy Ohanes Eskanian ran for the Aleppo seat, under category A on the Baath list. Assad’s rationale for this move is threefold: It was aimed at helping to forge better relations with Armenia in opposition to Turkey, acquiring old Soviet military equipment still in Armenia’s possession, and finally rewarding the Armenian community for defending the regime. Eskanian joined two other Armenian candidates, Gerayer Arisian, who ran as an independent under category B, and Nour Arisian, who won a seat in Damascus.
Fourth, another change this time around was the exclusion of Kurdish representation. The regime made sure to remove Kurdish community leaders and to replace them with insignificant individuals. It pressured Omar Ossi, an MP since 2012, not to run, while another popular Kurdish personality, Tarif Kotreish, an MP since 2015, lost. Instead, two other candidates, Abdel Rahman Khalil from Hasakah and Ismail Hejjo from Raqqa, were chosen, both of whom are from the Communist Party allied to the Baath. They joined the head of the party, Ammar Bakdash, and Alan Bakr from rural Aleppo, neither of whom is a true representative of the Kurdish community.
The increasing militarization of Parliament
Fifth, these elections also saw the increasing militarization of Parliament. As Charles Lister wrote in a recent article for Politico, Assad is leading Syrian society toward militarization along the lines of North Korea. Assad seems to like the idea of militarizing Syrian society and wants to expand the military ethos to the social and political levels. The military culture, as Assad said when he promoted this step, “involves absolute respect for hierarchy, executing orders blindly, and unlimited patience and resilience.” He called on seven retired lieutenant generals to run for Parliament: Aitan Aitan, a police officer from Deir ez-Zor, Abdel Razzak Barakat, from rural Aleppo, Basema al-Shatter, a former MD in the police from Damascus, Mufleh Nasralla, an army officer from Daraa, Moustafa Sokari, the ex-deputy interior minister from Hama, Fayez Alahmad, an army figure from Hama, and Nassib Abou Mahmood, an army officer from Sweida. The first six were on the list but did not win the primaries; the seventh was not even on the list at all. In much the same way that Parliament is being militarized, the regime will probably militarize the government that will be formed after the elections as well.
Candidates take to social media
Sixth, this is also the first time important candidates have contested the elections on social media. In another sign that the regime is losing its psychological control over the population, people now dare to criticize Assad and his regime. In fact, prominent figures were public in their criticism of the entire process. Fares Shehabi, an MP, the head of Federation of Syrian Chambers of Industry, an American citizen, and a regime loyalist, lost in the elections. The regime worked against him because he refused to form a joint list with Hussam Qaterji, a shady businessman on the EU and U.S. sanctions lists. Shehabi and seven other candidates on his list were kicked out of Parliament. He publicly said on social media that the corruption mafia and warlords were plotting against him, rigging the elections, and that one needs to accept the corruption or be forced out. He described those involved as the “internal ISIS.” Nevertheless, the regime forced him to delete a post in which he said there was a conspiracy against him. The manipulation in favor of Qaterji was so flagrant that an independent candidate, Sindus Mawardi, had her name removed the evening before the elections so that Qaterji could replace her — and of course he went on to win.
After Borween Ibrahim, a prominent Kurdish woman and the head of the Youth Party for Justice, lost in the elections, she lashed out, saying live on Facebook that the rigging started at 6am on election day, when her delegates were kicked out so that the results could be changed. She threatened that the “gang” will be held accountable for its actions and said she brought more than a thousand voters to the polls, but only received 250 votes — a sign of flagrant manipulation.
Removing existing MPs and allowing the reconciled to run
Seventh, the regime was much more aggressive about removing MPs this time around. In previous elections it used to retain at least 40 percent of the existing members of Parliament, as a way of teaching the junior MPs, but the removals this time were further-reaching, especially in Sweida. To punish the region and assert its control, the regime removed all of Sweida’s existing MPs. The rationale was that they were not able to calm people down and restore order in the area following the recent protests, which were brutally crushed by the security apparatus. Among the new faces the regime brought in was retired Lt. Gen. Nasib Abu Mahmoud, a former military man who can handle any future incidents in the area.
Eighth, this is also the first time the regime allowed reconciled individuals to run for Parliament. A former ISIS officer, Fadi Ramadan Alafsee, after reconciling with Assad and paying a half a million dollars, had his record cleared in order for him to run in the elections, although in the end he “lost.” Another similar candidate who was actually able to win a seat is Amer Taysir Khiti, whose family is connected to the Jaysh al-Islam militia. His brother Abdel Rahman was one of the top officers of the militia’s former leader, Zahran Alloush, while another brother is involved in the drug trade. Amer fled to Egypt and stayed there for four years until he reconciled with the regime two years ago, returning to Syria with loads of cash.
The election manipulations continued until the last moment. One member on the Baath list in Aleppo, Ayman Hallak, died two days after his name was included and was quickly replaced by Saloum al-Saloum. The Baath central command did not bother to announce the change, however, or print any signs with the name of the new candidate. Despite these seeming impediments, he still got elected, even though people only saw his name for the first time when they were voting. The same thing happened in Hasakah, where Fawaz Adlibs was replaced by Abdel Rahman Khalil without any public announcement being made.
The regime placed ballot boxes for Raqqa and Idlib, two areas outside its control, in Hama. As for the ballot boxes under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, since they did not want to cooperate with the regime on the elections, two ballot boxes each were placed in the security zones in Qamishli and Hasakah, along with some others in a few villages. In the previous elections in Hasakah, the regime used to give its supporters a shadow list of independents (4 seats) to face the opposition, who were usually from the Kurdish community in that area. However, this time around the regime did not issue such a list as there were no Kurds from the opposition running in the governorate.
Signs of the regime’s insecurity
Ninth, in these elections even so-called popular people who usually run were either prevented from doing so or the results were manipulated to make them lose, like Fares Shehabi and Tarif Kotresh. Maria Saadeh, from the Saadeh family prominent in the SSNP, lost, as did Nawaf al-Muslat, the head of the Jabbour tribe. Moussa Nour, the head of the journalists’ syndicate, ran for a seat in Homs that was set aside for another candidate that lost the primaries. Abdel Aziz al-Melhem, the head of a prominent tribe in Homs, did not win, nor did his son Nawwaf, a member of both the Sochi and Geneva talks and head of the People’s Party, who everyone expected to run in his place. The biggest surprise, however, was the loss of Mohammad Alfares, the head of Tay tribe in Hasakah. This shows the regime’s insecurity and its unwillingness to give a post to anyone that has power and popular legitimacy in their community. The regime is reluctant to promote its own loyalists given its awareness of its rapidly declining popularity, even among its own hard-core base.
Finally, while trying to eclipse people who have any local constituency, the regime went to particular lengths this time around to install the relatives of existing regime officials. Zein al-Abedin Abbas, the son of the ambassador to India, who is married to the daughter of Mansour Azzam, the minster of the presidential palace, ran and won, for example. So too did Houmam Massuti, the husband of Lina Kinaya, the director of Asma al-Assad’s office. This election also illustrated the growing influence of the first lady. The business tycoon Mohammed Hamsho, who is related to Maher al-Assad, was forced to withdraw his name from the elections. Instead, the new list included militia leaders, smugglers, and other acolytes of Assad, as well as, for the first time, a representative for Iranian immigrants who were given Syrian citizenship, Ruqia Karminshahi, although she lost.
It important to note that the electoral process is structured in a way that allows for regime manipulation. To start with, anyone can vote anywhere. There is no list of registered voters at each voting station. Therefore, anyone can vote multiple times and there is no mechanism to cross-check the names. In addition, any party or candidate that wants to run must list the names of its members after those of the Baath party, i.e. anyone running will be automatically promoting the names of the Baath members in their governorate on their list. Printing shops, by order from the intelligence apparatus, are not allowed to print lists without the names of Baath candidates. Therefore, anyone who runs is by default an adjunct to the Baath candidates.
Moreover, even if they win, MPs do not have the right to propose bills by themselves. According to the law, 10 members are needed to propose a law. However, this has never been practiced as Baath members, who make up 70 percent of the Parliament, block any independent proposals, meaning that Parliament can only discuss what the government suggests.
At the end of the day, the regime does not really care about any of the numbers it announces, a point underscored by the fact that in 2016 the official number of eligible voters was 8.8 million, but this time around it was more than double that, at 19 million.
For all the reasons outlined above, it’s clear the Syrian Parliament is a joke. However, given the changes that Assad introduced and the way in which the July elections were carried out, it’s a joke that even regime loyalists cannot believe — the worst joke ever.
Ayman Abdel Nour is a noted Syrian reformist, the editor-in-chief of All4Syria (Syria's leading independent news outlet), and the president of the non-profit Syrian Christians for Peace. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images