The Middle East Channel

Taking Syria’s elections seriously

Virtually nobody took this week’s Syrian elections seriously. It is easy to understand the nearly universal skepticism about balloting in the midst of ongoing killing in a manifestly undemocratic regime. Even when regimes have the best intentions, elections held in such difficult circumstances are rarely credible — and few believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ...

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GettyImages
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GettyImages

Virtually nobody took this week’s Syrian elections seriously. It is easy to understand the nearly universal skepticism about balloting in the midst of ongoing killing in a manifestly undemocratic regime. Even when regimes have the best intentions, elections held in such difficult circumstances are rarely credible — and few believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has the best intentions. A U.S. State Department spokesman declared that the balloting "bordered on the ludicrous."                                       

But this misses the point. There is a very real political logic behind the conducting of these elections — one familiar to decades of such elections under Arab authoritarian regimes, and one which points to the coming terrain of the unfolding political struggle in Syria. The significance of the seemingly insignificant elections lies in the crucial battle over expectations about the regime’s future. Put simply, the elections are meant to signal that the regime is strong, and its downfall unthinkable. Even though results have not yet been announced, the elections demonstrate that the regime is in control, both of the process and the outcomes, and the political game must be played on their terms. 

The elections matter, then, not because they offer any real democratic choice or meaningful change, but because they affect what Syrians believe about the relative strength of the regime and its opponents, and of the possibilities for reform. They undermine the belief that change is inevitable (or even possible), offer fence-sitters hope for reform, and provide regime supporters a fresh opportunity to reap rewards. Their impact on Syrian expectations and beliefs matters far more than the parties that take part in the elections or candidates who come to power. For ultimately the struggle for Syria will be won as much by beliefs and expectations as it will through guns and bullets.

In this sense, the elections can be seen as a gambit to rebuild the recently destabilized belief that the regime is invincible. When former President Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, I asked a Syrian friend why the immediate reaction was so muted. Her answer, only partly tongue-in-cheek, was "No one can be quite sure he’s really gone, and won’t just come back tomorrow."  For more than 40 years — and for the lifetime of most Syrians — the country has been ruled either by the father or son (and with pictures of Bashar’s deceased brother, Basil, "the holy ghost,"dotting the country.) The fall of the regime was nearly unimaginable for many.

That image of invulnerability has certainly been shaken by the last year’s violence. Pictures of bodies and buildings riddled with bullets flood the airwaves; prices are rising and store shelves emptying; refugees are fleeing to neighboring countries; and entire towns are under siege. But, at least until very recently, Syrians in large swaths of the country have been able to go about their daily business without confronting the violent conflict face-to-face. Syrians desperately want to return to "normal," but they don’t necessarily see a regime on the brink. And certainly no one — not even the most enthusiastic opposition — thinks it is destined inevitably to fall.

By calling for elections even as bullets are flying and sanctions are ratcheting upward, Assad can use elections to promote a sense of "normalcy. In general, doing what would be inconceivable in the midst of crisis suggests that the regime isn’t as threatened as many say. This convinces would-be defectors that they have little to gain by actively joining the opposition. That is, the power of "normalcy" is that by suggesting crises don’t exist, it actually diminishes the threat. (Arguably, it is this same sense of assuredness that Bashar tries to portray in widely-broadcast speeches that turn so many stomachs.) By getting Syrians to act as if elections matter and reforms are real, even if they don’t believe it, the regime demonstrates and in a very real way increases its power. In short, elections promote the notion that the regime can weather the crisis. Defectors beware.

This strategy depends upon actually conveying that message, of course. Elections also provide opponents a chance to lampoon the regime, turning the nation’s attention simultaneously to corruption and repression. The Syrian National Council’s boycott of the elections and widespread online mockery challenges the underlying assumptions that the regime hopes to spread. Even more important are reported demonstrations, general strikes, and YouTube videos. These videos show children insulting Bashar before casting fake ballots; mock elections featuring bribed voters, stuffed ballot boxes, and proclaiming the "freedom" of the vote; and citizens calling out the names of those who voted with their lives during the violent uprising. The opposition’s mockery publicly breaks the mold of compliance. As they have for more than a year now, the resistance in the face of brutality virtually screams out that things are not the same –and never will be again.

The "judges" in this battle of interpretations will be the "silent majority" of Syrians. Reasonably successful elections might siphon off support from the opposition of those who prefer gradual reform over violent conflict. Many among the "silent majority" in Syria today share the deep grievances against the regime. They feel the effects of economic inequality, recognize that repression is widespread, and long for a better future. But they hate equally much to see violence and bloodshed. Many want a better way to effect change in Syria than to bring the country to its knees, escalating conflict inside, and giving outside forces a chance to take advantage of Syria’s breakdown. Such frustrations have grown as Syria slides into civil war.

As the opposition increasingly turns to violence, the Gulf pledges financial support for the opposition, and international pressure increases (most visibly with the presence of peacekeepers), those who were in support of reform but not violent opposition are only more worried. To them, the Lebanonization, or Iraqization, of Syria — properly understood not only as sectarian conflict but as the site of regional and international intervention — seems well on its way. So too, they become more uncertain of what the future would bring if the opposition succeeds. That the Muslim Brotherhood, and perhaps even more radical Islamists, has Saudi Arabia’s blessing (and its funds), and the reported role of al Qaeda undermines their trust in the opposition.

Under these circumstances, many are looking for an option of reform that ends the bloodshed and undercuts the regional and international forces that seem to be circling like vultures, hoping to feed off Syria’s remains. Elections hold out at least the illusion of hope that the regime is on a path to reform. It may seem incongruous. The idea that the same regime using tanks against civilians, and estimated to have killed more than 7500 people, could lead peaceful reform may seem incredible. And yet, for many Syrians hoping to find a solution, elections are part of an unfolding process that may be just enough to keep them siding with the regime… or at least from openly siding with the opposition.

And, of course, for supporters, elections are an opportunity to reap benefits. Elections under authoritarian regimes always offer supporters an opportunity to compete for special privileges and access to state resources. Being a member in Syria’s People’s Assembly has never held major policy making prerogatives. In fact, Syria’s legislature is among the weakest in the Arab world. Yet, membership has come with status, perks, and an ability to help constituents (or at least those closest positioned) maneuver through a corrupt, opaque bureaucracy.

This is not the first time the regime has dangled access to parliament (as well as government ministries) in front of potential opposition to gain their acquiescence. Indeed, when Syria was facing economic crises and disruptive reforms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hafez al-Assad expanded the number of seats in parliament and allowed independents to run (and win). So too, Bashar’s elections benefit those who are willing to play by the rules. More than 7,000 candidates, including more than 700 women, ran for the 250 seats up for grabs in Monday’s election. Many hailed from the 11 new parties that formed and registered after Bashar issued Legislative Decree No. 100 for 2011 on Parties Law in August last year. For these people, and those around them, the elections are a chance to get closer to the halls of power.

This does not mean the regime will ultimately succeed in holding onto power, or that elections are the only factor that will determine the outcome. The Damascus bombings on a military intelligence compound, coming only three days after elections, remind us that the struggle to convey "normalcy" takes place in many arenas, and with sometimes tragic consequences. But it reminds us that political reforms and ongoing conflicts, negotiations, and even arms transfers are only part of the story. Elections and other domestic reforms — just like international pressures and machinations — affect how much Syrians believe change is possible, and if they have confidence that it is desirable. This will determine whether the regime or opposition ultimately gains the upper hand. The elections are part of the larger struggle for hearts and minds of the Syrian people.

Ellen Lust is an associate professor of political science at Yale University.

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