Assad, who became president when his father Hafez died in 2000, was re-elected with over 97 percent of the vote in an uncontested referendum in 2007. Syria revised its election rules in 2012 to allow for multiple candidates, but the reform did little to convince the opposition or its Western backers that elections would be any more legitimate this time around.
Citing Syria’s abysmal democratic record and the violence raging throughout the country, Syrian opposition figures on Monday roundly denounced the exercise as a “farce.”
“With vast parts of Syria completely destroyed by Assad’s air force, army and militias over the last three years, and with a third of Syria’s population displaced internally or in refugee camps in the region, there is no electorate in Syria in a condition to exercise its right to vote,” said the office of Ahmed Jarba, president of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main, Western-backed opposition group that is itself suffering from a legitimacy crisis on the ground in Syria.
To date, no other candidates have put their names forward to contest Assad. A short-lived Facebook campaign calling for ex-SNC president Moaz al-Khatib to run — accumulating 50,000 likes in less than 24 hours — was shut down amid counterarguments that his candidacy would only legitimize an inevitable Assad victory.
Khatib would not have been eligible to run, anyway. Syria’s new election law restricts eligibility to those who have resided in Syria for the past 10 years, effectively barring would-be candidates from the SNC because the group has operated out of Istanbul since violence first erupted in early 2011. That distance has been a major grievance of opposition fighters who feel SNC members are detached from the reality on the ground.
The government has not elaborated on its plans for holding elections in the nightmarish logistical landscape of war-torn Syria. Parts of major cities, such as Homs and Aleppo, are under near-constant siege from the regime, activists in those cities say. Elsewhere, pockets around the country have been wrested from Assad’s grips — some are now ruled by hardline rebel groups that were previously linked to Al-Qaeda — and it seems polling there in June would be out of the question.
On Monday, activists reported that five people were killed by government barrel bombing in Aleppo’s al-Sakhour district while deadly gunfire was exchanged in Homs, the coastal city of Lattakia, and in Idlib, in the northern borderlands.
The U.N. has blamed both rebels and the regime for the humanitarian disaster the conflict has created, and placed individuals from both sides on its list of suspected war criminals.
Prior to Monday’s announcement, Western and Gulf Arab backers of Syria’s opposition movement had called plans for an election a “parody of democracy” and urged Assad to honor a previous agreement between the regime and the SNC that called for a transitional government.
At Syria’s second round of peace talks in Geneva in February, U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi cautioned the Assad regime from taking any political steps that might run counter to the formation of a transitional government to steer Syria out of its current turmoil — a principle both sides technically agreed to but made no progress in implementing. “The elections will close the door, in the near future, to negotiations,” Brahimi said.
“Such elections are incompatible with the letter and spirit of the Geneva communique,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Monday. An election would “damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution that the country so urgently needs,” he said.
Even Russia, Assad’s most important ally, is said to have softened its stance that Assad should remain at the helm of a theoretical transition government.
But with the peace effort in tatters and Assad confident in his chances of victory, most analysts believe the window of opportunity for negotiating his exit has all but shuttered. With the help of Lebanese Shia fighters of Hezbollah, Syrian forces recaptured the strategic western border town of Yabroud in March. Analysts say Assad's soldiers are slowly making gains around Aleppo and Damascus, too.
Just last week, Assad said the war had reached a “turning point” and that the “terrorist” insurgency would soon be vanquished.
With wire services