Legal changes two months ago were supposed to loosen the Baath Party's stranglehold on power. Instead, its grip remains firm. Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent, reports
DAMASCUS // Promising rule of law, democracy and an end to the Baath Party's monopoly on power, Syria's new constitution has been heralded by regime officials as proof of real political change.
But two months after the new legal code was formally introduced in response to protests calling for reform, a Baathist official has acknowledged the party's grip remains undiminished. Lawyers say nothing has changed in the daily operations of ineffectual justice courts or to rein in the security services.
One of the key elements of President Bashar Al Assad's reform programme was scrapping the previous constitution's Article 8, under which the Baath Party was guaranteed political control of the country as "leader of state and society".
The latest constitution pledges multiparty democracy. To that end, about half a dozen new parties and more than 7,000 candidates have been approved by an interior ministry-led committee to contest the May 7 parliamentary elections.
However, doing away with Article 8 has done little, if anything, to weaken the Baath Party's institutional hold on the country it has ruled for decades, and party members anticipate a victory in next week's ballot will further enshrine its leading role.
"Now on the ground the Baath Party is ruling. It ruled between 1963 and 1973 without the need for Article 8 and [without Article 8], it is still ruling today," said a prominent Baath party official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
"The Baath party didn't give up its authority yet, and if the other sides want power they will have to take it from us in the elections or by force [of arms]," he said. "The Baath Party is still here. Let's see who wins the elections."
Technically the new constitution became active the moment it was approved in a national referendum on February 27. Officials put turnout then at 57.4 per cent, with opposition groups boycotting the vote in protest against on-going military operations against areas involved in the uprising.
Activists widely criticised the new constitution for further concentrating powers in the president's hands and giving him immunity from prosecution for any criminal act committed in office.
While all future Syrian presidents will be limited to a maximum of two seven-year terms of office, clauses allow for an unlimited extension if new elections cannot be held.
Mr Al Assad, whose second seven-year term of office will expire in 2014, is legally eligible for a subsequent 14 years - plus a possible extension - as Syria's leader because the constitution is not retroactive.
Umran Zaubie, a lawyer and Baath Party member, said the new legal framework would bring about profound changes to Syria's political system and assure "freedom, democracy and human rights", but that it was unrealistic to expect an immediate shift.
"The new constitution won't be implemented on the ground overnight, there is a line in the constitution that says all laws will have to be changed [to comply] within three years," he said.
"Real implementation in a political sense will begin after the [7 May] parliamentary elections, although a start has already been made, it will take time for it all to happen. It's absurd to say, 'there will be a new constitution tomorrow so everything will change tomorrow', it is not a small matter."
Mr Zaubie said he expected the Baath Party to remain a strong presence in Syrian life.
"There are three million Baath Party members, and there are maybe half a million in the opposition, if we are being generous with their numbers," he said. "That half a million wants to cancel the three million but it cannot, that is undemocratic. Let the real parties stand up in the elections and flex their muscles."
As with the constitutional referendum, opposition groups are boycotting the 7 May parliamentary election, refusing to field candidates or vote.
Anwar Al Bunni, a human-rights advocate and lawyer often found representing clients in Damascus' justice palace, said there had been "no change" in the way the legal system operated since the new constitution went into force.
"Anywhere else a new constitution would mean new guidelines for lawyers and courts, updated legal texts and documents, new instructions for judges, a review of work practices and procedures," he said. "In Syria we have none of that, it's all exactly the same as it was before, nothing has changed, not one thing, it's business as usual."
Mr Al Bunni, who last year completed a five-year prison sentence for political dissent, said legal codes were still being ignored as a matter of routine by the authorities.
"Under the new constitution the attorney general alone gives permission for arrests and to extend the period of detention for those being held and I can assure you that is not happening," he said.
"We are still ruled by the Baath Party and there is still gang rule, not rule of law."
Rights monitors say more than 25,000 political prisoners remain in detention, many held for months without charge.
Other lawyers involved in cases of detained opposition activists similarly described the legal system as an irrelevance, with real power held by more than a dozen branches of the secret police and security services.
"I went to the attorney general to ask about some arrests, to see the warrants only he can issue and he just said 'you've come to the wrong man'," recounted one lawyer.