x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Notion of choice is a fiction in Syria election

'There is only one way to vote and that is for Assad, even a vote for the other men would be a vote for Assad," said one resident as President Bashar Al Assad grabs nearly 90 per cent of the votes in Wednesday's election, winning him another seven years in office.

A handout picture made from the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian citizens holding the national flags and photos depicting President Bashar Assad as they gather to celebrate his victory in presidential elections, in Latakia province, Syria on 5 May 2014.  EPA/Sana handout
A handout picture made from the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrian citizens holding the national flags and photos depicting President Bashar Assad as they gather to celebrate his victory in presidential elections, in Latakia province, Syria on 5 May 2014. EPA/Sana handout

Forces loyal to the president have long offered people a stark choice, one they would brazenly graffiti on walls in areas defying the regime – “Assad or no one”.

Wednesday’s election victory, with Bashar Al Assad confirmed as taking 88.7 per cent of the vote and winning another seven-year term in office, underscored the nature of that choice, locking Syria on to a path of more war, more death, more destruction.

In a one-party state ruled by dreaded security services, the outcome of the ballot was never in doubt. Monday’s vote was a piece of theatre not a real election, with Mr Al Assad, whose family has ruled for more than four decades, facing two rival candidates, Hassan Al Nouri and Maher Hajjar.

Neither man had any hope of winning and they were selected and approved by the Syrian authorities, and the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, precisely because they would not offer any real challenge.

Hassan Nouri actually campaigned on the promise that, if elected, he would appoint Mr Al Assad as his minster of defence, in order to keep up the good work he has done fighting a war that has turned much of the county to cinders, killed upwards of 160,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes.

The notion of Mr Al Assad serving in a government run by anyone else is, as any Syrian – pro-regime, anti-regime or independent – would tell you, utterly preposterous.

Meanwhile, Maher Hajar, in his token media appearances, would often be shown beneath photos of Mr Al Assad, an unsubtle reminder about who the boss in regime-held Syria really is. He also supported Mr Al Assad’s theory of applying a military solution to deep-rooted political problems.

In Damascus, where select international media have been given limited access, posters of Mr Al Assad’s rivals could be seen, although as soon as the election was over, most of them were stripped down, removing any lingering suggestion that an alternative to Assad family rule was possible.

Outside of Damascus city centre there were even fewer posters, in many places, none at all.

Fanatical supporters of Mr Al Assad would wear white T-shirts emblazoned with his face. Supporters of Mr Hajar and Mr Nouri – well, there were no T-shirts and neither man had any meaningful support.

“No one knows who they are or care who they are, there is only one way to vote and that is for Assad, even a vote for the other men would be a vote for Assad, that is the way business is done in Syria,” said a resident of a southern suburb of Damascus who backs neither the regime nor the rebels.

“The idea that we have a choice is a fiction, if the election is about anything, it is about us not having a choice,” he said.

Any candidates who might have offered an alternative were excluded by laws passed in the months leading up to the election, barring them from standing. The likes of Moaz Al Khatib, a popular, widely respected former imam of the Umayyid mosque in Damascus and one-time opposition leader with genuine national appeal, was, for example, not eligible to stand even if he’d wanted to.

The election was, perhaps, if anything, a poll of how popular Mr Al Assad remains in the 60 per cent or so of the country the regime still controls. Anecdotally at least, he commands real support and draws a cult-like following among his fans. At one polling station in Damascus, the authorities had put pins in voting booths, so his supporters could mark their ballot paper in blood.

But even as a poll of how much support the Syrian president actually had, the election was flawed.

In Damascus, die-hard regime supporters were seen voting more than once, and there was the usual tricks from the authoritarian regime of bussing in government employees to vote plus the pervasive, instinctive intimidation that permeates Syrian society.

Some hardline opponents of Mr Al Assad even voted for him, because they didn’t want to attract attention from the security agencies.

The final tally giving a third term of office to Mr Al Assad would have decided before the ballot papers were counted, if they were even counted.

The 88.7 per cent figure is, in reality, a measurement of nothing more than how popular the regime wants to present itself as being.

Another of the slogans painted on walls of rebelling areas by regime forces during the uprising spoke to a different choice – “Assad or we burn the country”.

This week’s election has shown that choice also to be a false one. Syrians still have Mr Al Assad and they have a country that has been all but burned to the ground.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae