Damascus: Amid a
shaky truce and presence of UN monitors, Syria is bracing to hold
its first multi-party parliamentary elections in five years next
month that hopes to provide space for a nascent political
opposition in the restive Middle East country where thousands have
died from a civil conflict in the last months.
The campaign has yet to pick up pace, with the ruling Baath party
in the process of unveiling its candidates. But on street corners
and the bustling souks (local markets), people are found in small
huddles discussing the Syrian situation and the upcoming
Candidates from 18 political parties are in the fray. The walls of
the city and lampposts are splashed with posters of old and new
politicians who are competing in this electoral contest, which
will be watched closely by the world.
"Well, I am not going to tell you who I am voting for. That's a
secret. But we are hoping elections will bring in more stability,"
Mahmoud, a shopkeeper who sells local sweets and candies at the
old Damascus souk that is said to be more than 1,000 years old,
told a visiting IANS correspondent.
There is no chanting of slogans and carnival-like campaigning one
associates with older established democracies. Predictably, the
atmosphere is subdued with people often voicing fears of violence
that may mar the polls. But people say, at least in the Syrian
capital, that they will not be deterred by fears and will make
their choice known at the secret ballot.
"We are not afraid to vote. All good Syrians should come out to
vote," says Khalid al Homsi, a restaurant owner who spent many
years in the US before returning home.
The besieged Syrian government, under increased international
pressure to deliver on reforms, hopes elections would help
stabilize the situation amid charges and counter-charges by the
regime and opposition activists of engineering violence in
different parts of Syria like Homs and Hama.
"The only way out of the present crisis is the ballot box where
the will of the people will be expressed," Fayssal Mekdad,
vice-minister of foreign affairs, told IANS.
The campaign will gain momentum after the Baath party announces
its list of candidates in the next 3-4 days, says Mekdad.
"There is a great enthusiasm among the voters. We are hoping for a
good turnout," Mahmoud Al Abrash, president of the Syrian Peoples'
Council, told IANS.
The May 7 elections will be held under a new legislation passed
three months ago that allowed nine new political parties to enter
the fray and revoked the decades-old clause that the ruling Baath
Party was "leader of state and society". Currently, there are nine
political parties, including the ruling Baath Party. These nine
parties are a coalition of sorts, calling themselves the
Nearly 14 million people are eligible to vote in the elections in
a country of 24 million people. High turnout is doubtful as the
Syrian government fears that the rebels will do all they can to
disrupt the elections, thereby marring the credibility of the
exercise in international eyes.
"The armed opposition may create unfavourable groups. They are
undemocratic," said Mekdad.
The result of the elections to the 250-member Syrian People's
Council appear to be a foregone conclusion, with the Baath party
having 3.5 million registered members that leaves the opposition
miles behind. The next big party is the Communist Party of Syria
which has only around 30,000-50,000 members. But the decision to
hold the elections amid rebel threats is seen as the first
concrete step by the Bashr al-Assad regime in widening the
political space for the growth of other political parties.
Currently, the ruling Baath party has 127 seats in the 250-member
The new constitution bars the formation of political parties on
the basis of religious, tribal, regional, denominational, or
profession-related basis, or be a branch of or affiliated to a
non-Syrian party or political organisation, which effectively
excludes the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or Kurdish parties
seeking regional autonomy.
(Manish Chand can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)