MS Risk Blog

Syrian Elections set for 3 June

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The Syrian government has called for presidential elections to be held on 3 June, with voting for Syrians outside the country to occur at Syrian embassies on 28 May. Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not officially declared his intention to run for re-election, he has suggested that he will seek another seven-year term, and has begun campaigning — visiting areas recently retaken by his forces. Allies in Russia and in Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shia movement have predicted he will win.

On state television, Syrian parliamentary speaker Mohamed Jihad al-Laham announced that requests for nomination would be accepted until 1 May. Under the 2012 constitution, multiple candidates will be allowed to run for office; however they must meet highly restrictive guidelines. Candidates must be: at least 40 years old; Syrian citizens with two Syrian parents; free of criminal convictions; and must have resided in Syria for the past 10 years, which rules out many opposition figures in exile. The new election laws state that balloting must be contested by more than one candidate. Analysts expect at least one candidate will run against Assad in order for the vote to appear legitimate.

A Syrian lawmaker, Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, has already registered as a candidate, becoming the first official contender. Hajjar is a 43-year-old man from Aleppo. Syrian state media described Hajjar as a long-time communist who later formed the Popular Will Party in Aleppo. By law, he still needs to collect the signatures of 35 lawmakers for his candidacy to become valid.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes there will be some opposing candidates, but they will all be from what Assad’s calls the “tolerated opposition,” a group with no connection to the rebels calling for Assad’s resignation.  However, Tabler adds, if the election does take place, there may be negative consequences because Assad could use it as an argument to oppose the United Nations-led peace talks.

The announcement of elections has been met with negative reaction. Monzer Akbik, chief of staff of the president’s office of the main western-backed National Coalition opposition group, said, “This is a state of separation from reality, a state of denial. He didn’t have any legitimacy before this theatrical election and he will not after. We do not know what actor he is putting up as an opponent but we are not taking this seriously.”

The Friends of Syria coalition — a group of 11 countries advocating for regime change in Syria that includes the United States, the UK, Germany and France — said that elections in Syria would be “a parody of democracy,” and an electoral process led by Assad “mocks the innocent lives lost in the conflict […] Bashar al-Assad intends these elections to sustain his dictatorship,” the group said in a joint statement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Syria against holding the elections, saying, that elections in the middle of the Syrian crisis could “damage the political process and hamper the prospects for political solution,” according to Ban’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. UN-backed talks between the Assad regime and opposition leaders had stalled in February, with no date set for their resumption. Dujarric added that these elections are also incompatible with the Geneva Communique — the international plan adopted two years ago that calls for a transitional government to lead to free and fair elections.

The Assad family has held power in Syria for 43 years; Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000 and won a second term in 2007, unopposed. The Assad regime has been accused of giving priority treatment to the nation’s minority Alawite sect, from with Assad hails, and marginalising the majority of the Sunni Muslim population. Since the civil war began in 2011, over 150,000 people have been killed and millions forced to flee their homes as anti-Assad opposition vehemently fights government troops. The government maintains it is fighting armed terrorist groups bent on destabilizing the country. They have used unconventional means of warfare, including chemical weapons.

The US government and allied nations suspect that the Syrian government may have used chlorine gas in a deadly attack this month on its own people, killing at least two and affecting dozens of others in the rebel-held village of Kafr Zeita. There is no evidence that the attack was conducted by the Assad government, however, the regime has such chemicals and the means to deliver them. “Our assessment is it is, at a minimum, concentrated chlorine dropped from helicopters,” a U.S. official said. “That could only be the regime.” The Assad regime has argued that opposition forces have similar access to helicopters and chemical weapons.

Last year, Russia brokered a deal that requires Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community. The agreement halted threats of U.S. military action after allegations Syria launched a chemical attack last August that killed over 1,400 people. Al-Assad and other officials have vehemently denied responsibility.