The upcoming Syrian Presidential Elections explained

The Syrian Government will hold presidential polls on 26 May. This will be the second presidential election since the outbreak of the civil war over 10 years ago. The outcome of this election – like all the previous ones – is a foregone conclusion, and will most likely to consolidate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. However, Syria’s political, economic and military landscape has shifted since the last election.

Under Syria’s 2012 constitution, a president may only run for seven-year terms. Assad won the last poll in 2014 with 88.7% of the vote, having faced two lesser-known and state-sponsored rivals. In this election, only state-sanctioned candidates are likely to have been put forward to run. Several have already applied to stand, including one woman, though Assad has yet to announce his candidacy.

This election comes after Assad has turned the tide militarily with considerable Russian and Iranian support, which in recent years has put him back in control of two thirds of the country, including major population centres. Economically, Syria has been hard hit by US and international sanctions, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon. As a result, the value of the Syrian pound has continued to plummet and food, electricity and fuel shortages have worsened, triggering unrest in some areas and rare public criticism on loyalist social media.

A rift within the government’s inner circle recently came into the open with the regime’s erstwhile biggest financier, Rami Makhlouf, falling out with his cousin, Bashar al-Assad.

Is the election compliant with the UN Roadmap?

Syria’s opposition and Western countries say the election does not comply with the 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2254. They accuse the Damascus government of obstructing a UN-sponsored political process, which it is part of. The resolution endorsed a roadmap to peace in Syria that would start with the establishment of a transitional governing body, followed by the drafting of a new constitution and ending with UN-supervised elections.

The Syrian Constitutional Committee – which has a mandate to draw up the constitution – failed to start the process after the Syrian government rejected proposals put forward by the opposition and the UN. Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed delays in the process on the West, and gave his backing for the election.

Opposition and international reaction

Factions and figures from across the fragmented opposition have rejected the polls as a “farce”. Hadi al-Bahra, who co-chairs the committee, tweeted on 18 April that Assad is “slowly” trying “to strangle the political process”. Meanwhile, Nasr al-Hariri, the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said the election showed that the regime was “detached from reality”, while Prime Minister of the Turkey-backed Interim Government Abdul Rahman Mustafa – based in Turkish-controlled parts of the north of Syria – urged people to boycott it. Last month, the US Administration and the European Union underlined their position that Resolution 2254 is the only basis for any Syrian election.

Voting eligibility

Not all of the population is eligible to vote. The population in regime-controlled areas – where the polls will be held – is nearly 9.4 million out of an estimated total population of around 26 million – only 16.4 million of whom live in Syria, according to the research centre Jusoor for Studies. However, Syrians living abroad will be able to cast their ballots in Syrian embassies on 20 May. Voting in the previous election was not held in rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces and in areas exclusively controlled by Kurdish-led forces.

Government preparations

Preparations for the election started months before the poll date was announced. In December last year, Assad appointed several new senior media officials, including his press officer, former al-Jazeera anchorwoman Luna al-Shibl. According to opposition media, this move by Assad was to improve his image at home and abroad ahead of the election, using “soft power”. In the same month, Saudi-funded al-Arabiya reported that Assad’s supporters were seeking to gather 2.5 million signatures on a symbolic two-kilometre-long “love letter” to the president. This gesture is reportedly a call for him to stand in the election.

In recent months, government-held provinces have seen mobilisation for Assad’s re-election in schools, cultural centres, the military and local branches of the Baath Party, Syrian journalist Ayman Abdul Nour. In March, members of several Arab tribes held rallies in support of Assad in the far northeastern town of Qamishli in Hasaka province – mainly controlled by Syria’s Kurds.

The position of the Kurds

Kurdish-led authorities affiliated to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their media outlets have so far ignored the election. It should be known that they boycotted Syrian government elections throughout the civil war, but have allowed them take place in areas where Syrian government troops have a presence, such as the provinces of Hasaka and Raqqa. That said, their silence indicates that the SDF-linked entities are likely to boycott the upcoming election too.

Who would vote in Kurdish areas?

Syrian military personnel and public sector employees in the town of Qamishli, for example, could cast their ballots there in “the security quadrant” – a government-held area. Members of pro-government tribes and those who have shifted allegiance back to the government are also likely to vote. Meanwhile, Kurds loyal to the government in the capital and parts of the city of Aleppo are also likely to vote for Assad. Four Kurdish MPs, three communists and one from the ruling Baath party were elected to the Syrian legislature last year. While they are ignored by Syrian Kurdish media, they could appear on Iraqi Kurdish outlets to promote the Damascus government’s line.

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