x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Syria to vote for new constitution today

Syria will vote today on a new constitution, with little sign it will do anything to help end the crisis that has killed thousands and is headed towards civil war.

Anti-Syrian regime protesters on Friday carry a large Syrian revolution flag during a demonstration in Damascus.
Anti-Syrian regime protesters on Friday carry a large Syrian revolution flag during a demonstration in Damascus.

Almost a third of deposits in Syria's private banks have been sent overseas for safety as the deepening conflict and international sanctions batter the national economy.

Finance officials expect further capital flight as the uprising worsens.

Accounts from Syria's 14 listed banks show 95.6 billion Syrian pounds (Dh6.1bn) has left the country's ailing financial sector in the past year - 27.6 per cent of all funds on deposit.

At the end of 2010, the banks had 442bn pounds on deposit. A year later, with the Syrian economy under economic sanctions from the United States, Europe and Arab League, that total had shrunk to 346.4bn. Most of the funds have been transferred to banks in the Gulf and Europe, analysts say.

As the country's economic woes grow, Syria will vote today on a new constitution, with little sign it will do anything to help end the crisis that has killed thousands and is headed towards civil war.

President Bashar Al Assad and his supporters have made the legal framework the centrepiece of a political reform agenda, promised since the summer, which they say will result in Syria becoming a model democracy.

Russia, China and Iran, Syria's three major international backers, have hailed the referendum as a positive step and proof Mr Al Assad is serious about reforming his autocratic regime.

But as government forces conduct security operations against protest areas nationwide, including a long-running military siege on Homs in which civilian neighbourhoods have been bombarded by artillery, opposition groups say a rewritten constitution is irrelevant and have called for a boycott.

"We need an immediate and total ceasefire, not a new constitution," said Mahmoud Muraie, a member of the National Coordination Committee, one of the two major Syrian opposition blocs. Together, with the Syrian National Council, it has called for a boycott.

"More words on paper are not the solution to this crisis; words on paper will not stop people being killed," he said. "This referendum is a piece of theatre designed to show that reforms are happening when, on the ground, the situation keeps getting worse."

Mr Al Assad's international critics have similarly dismissed the vote as too little, too late.

Activists and human-rights monitors said between 26 and 45 people were killed by security forces nationwide yesterday, with most of the casualties in Homs and Hama. More than 7,000 people have been killed by the security forces since March, according to rights groups.

The Syrian authorities say 2,000 security personnel have been killed by "armed terrorist gangs".

With areas of the country already war zones, and central government control in provinces such as Homs and Idleb dubious - even on main roads in these areas travel is considered dangerous - it remains unclear how a referendum can be held.

The Syrian authorities have said there will be no problems ensuring a fair vote, an assurance doubted by analysts and lawyers who say there is no independent oversight for the process and that elections are routinely rigged.

"The government isn't concerned that people won't be able to safely go and vote because it doesn't even want them to vote," said one dissident lawyer based in Damascus. "Whatever happens, they [the authorities] will announce that 75 per cent of the people supported the new constitution."

Since Mr Al Assad announced the ballot would go ahead 10 days ago, state-run media discussed the virtues of the new laws and encouraged people to participate.

The most trumpeted change is to Article 8 of the constitution, which guarantees the Baath party control of the country. That has been dropped in the new draft, replaced with mention of a multiparty democracy.

Under the new draft, the president is also directly elected in a contested ballot, instead of merely approved in an uncontested referendum, as has been the case for decades.

The proposed laws have nonetheless come in for widespread criticism, even outside hard-core anti-regime circles. Syria's small but influential Christian community - long supportive of Mr Al Assad - has been angered by Article 3, a clause requiring the president be a Muslim.

"Assad has upset his supporters among the Christians and secularists with Article 3," said a Syrian political analyst. "The constitution talks about total equality between all citizens but then discriminates against non-Muslims. It's a total contradiction."

If the constitution was designed to win over the so-called silent majority - the moderate bloc of Syrian society often cited as being neither with the president nor the opposition - anecdotally, at least, it has fallen short.

"It is a terrible constitution, we needed to see the president's powers reduced and more independent oversight. Instead the president will be as powerful as he always has been, everything will be in his hands," said a middle-aged, middle-class professional. "This constitution won't make any of the fundamental changes we need, it will not modernise Syria."

Members of the ruling elite have also made clear their disappointment in the draft. Mohammad Suleman, a former government minister and ally of president Hafez Al Assad, Mr Al Assad's father and hardline predecessor, said the draft laws fell far short of the needed reforms.

"This constitution keeps all authority in the regime's hands, there is no clear division of power that will keep the judiciary or parliament independent of the executive," he said.

"It is a step forward in some ways but I personally do not see this constitution meeting the aspirations of the Syrian people."

According to the draft laws, Mr Al Assad, serving his second seven-year term of office, is allowed to stand for election again in 2014 and would be eligible for another 14 years of rule - with the possibility of an open-ended extension.

It also gives the president immunity including for criminal acts committed in the line of duty, barring high treason.