Syrians are going to the polls today for the first time in seven years to elect a new president. It will not be an exciting day, because it is almost certain that the incumbent President Bashar al-Assad will be able to begin his fourth term of office of another seven years.
“ The whole city is full of Assad posters,” says Middle East correspondent Daisy Mohr from the capital Damascus. “For days there have been big parties on the street. Music is heard everywhere and there is dancing. In all the years Ive come to Syria, Ive never seen it so vivid. The people here are already celebrating his victory.”
The Assad Dynasty has been leading Syria hard for 50 years, with the support of the powerful security apparatus. Bashar al-Assad succeeded his late father Hafez in 2000 and won earlier elections with a large majority in 2007 and 2014. The West called the ballot boxes unfree and unfair.
The illusion of a democracy
The question is whether the election celebrations in Damascus really show the will of the people, because these elections are also being criticized. Even though Syrians can go to the polling station today and there are two opponents, according to Middle East expert Goos Hofstee of the Clingendael Institute, it is mainly a show process. “Its a way for Assad to sustain the illusion of democracy.”
First of all, Hofstee emphasises that not all Syrians are allowed to vote, but only those who live in areas controlled by Assad. The Syrians who fled to the opposition area in the province of Idlib cannot participate in the elections. “That in itself is not democratic.”
In addition, the two opponents who compete against Assad have been carefully chosen by the regime. Only Syrians who have lived in Syria for the last ten years can participate in the elections. Moreover, they can only participate with the support of the Syrian Parliament, which is dominated by Assads Baath Party. “The opponents will get a few percent of the votes, but that is purely for the stage,” says Hofstee.
The Syrians who fled the country were able to vote at the embassy earlier. But according to Hofstee, many of them are afraid. “They need to fill in all kinds of data controlled by the Syrian Secret Service. In a dictatorship, you do not dare to vote against the dictator. Fearing reprisals for their families in Syria, many of them did not vote.”
Economy is about to collapse
Although there seems to be no doubt about the outcome of the elections, Assads Syria is in bad shape. After ten years of war, the country is in ruins and the economy has reached a low point. “Things are even worse economically than during the war in recent years,” says Mohr.
Sanctions imposed by America and the EU have given the country a big blow. Moreover, the international community does not want to help build Syria as long as Assad is in power. In addition, the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon also plays a role. “The economies of Lebanon and Syria are very intertwined. As a result of the economic crisis in Lebanon, the Syrian currency is also plunging and everything is extremely expensive.”
It leads to irritations among the population. “At the baker you stand in line for one and a half to two hours to get a couple of loaves. Also, there are long rows at sediment pumps, because there is a large shortage of fuel. So it is finally safe in government after ten years of war, but now the country has an economy that is about to collapse,” explains Mohr.
However, the poor economic situation will not play a role in these elections. “Military, Assad is firmly in the saddle,” says Hofstee. “He has many parts of Syria back in his hands, so few people will revolt against him now. In addition, he also receives support from Russia.”
In addition, according to Hofstee, some Syrians are also afraid of the alternative. “Syrians have seen terror groups such as Islamic State rise and know what that means. Theyre afraid that if Assad falls away, these kinds of groups could come back to power.”
So little critical sounds sound from the government, correspondent Daisy Mohr also notes. “Some Syrians shut up when I ask them about the election. Its a silence that says a lot.”