Reyhanlı, Asharq Al-Awsat—Few people, either in or outside Syria, expect the Syrian presidential election to hold any surprises. “It is a sham election,” Anthony Franks, a Middle East expert with consulting firm Mars Omega, told me a few weeks ago as we discussed the June 3 vote. Then he added in a qualifier: “But it is an important sham election.”
Nothing could be truer. The unfolding events during Syria’s election week—voting opened on May 28 for Syrians living abroad—have laid clear the stark polarization that three years of searing conflict have wrought on this ruined country and her beleaguered people. At a polling station in Beirut, one man reportedly used his own blood to mark his vote for Bashar Al-Assad. Meanwhile, in villages, towns and cities across rebel-held areas, opposition activists have staged a series of noisy protests against what they describe as Assad’s “blood elections.” For a country that has been soaked in blood for the past three years, the symbolism seemed appropriate in both cases.
This is an election in which every detail was designed to ensure that those who support the regime were pandered to, and those who despise it excluded. In the far-away Armenian capital Yerevan, where between 10,000 and 15,000 Syrian–Armenians—all of them Christians, largely from the middle classes and overwhelmingly pro-regime—have taken refuge, the Syrian Embassy was open for voting. In Turkey, a neighboring country which is hosting over a million refugees, not a single polling booth has been provided—but given that most of the Syrians there are Sunnis who have escaped from the northern cities and towns that Assad has smashed to bits like a petulant toddler, that is hardly surprising. None of the Syrians in exile who left the country without their passports or via rebel territory—the destitute, the military defectors, the blacklisted—were allowed to register to vote.
“Until it was announced, we didn’t think that Assad would hold the elections,” said Yahiya Al-Alawi, a former restaurant owner from Idlib who was left destitute when both his house and his business were destroyed. “I can’t describe the feeling I had when I heard that there would be elections. It’s very silly, and very sad given what has happened in Syria over the past three years.”
Like hundreds of thousands of other Syrians who have lost everything, Yahiya moved his family to Hatay, a Turkish province that juts into Syria at the western end of the border region. In his new restaurant job in Reyhanlı he earns 750 Turkish Lira (356 US dollars) per month and has to spend 400 Lira (190 dollars) of that on his rent. He said that even if the Syrian government had made voting provisions in Turkey, he would not take part in the elections. For Syrians like Yahiya, being asked to take part in the vote would have added insult to already crippling injury. “No-one should help the regime make these elections,” he said.
In confining the elections to the places where he still wields power and commands respect, Assad has taken control of this act of political theater just as deftly as he has taken back territory in recent weeks. Whether by luck or concerted military effort, the election has come at a time when Assad appears to be gaining a decisive upper hand on the battlefield. In the past month his forces have retaken the former rebel stronghold of Homs and appear to be encircling the opposition-held area of the city of Aleppo. In the oil-rich northeastern regions, the rebels are locked in a gruesome struggle against opportunistic Islamist groups that are taking advantage of the chaos to make a grab for the country’s resources.
Abu Fahed, a father of four who runs a small grocery store in Reyhanlı, watched with grief and anger as the regime retook the Old City of Homs from the rebels last month. His house and his business used to be there; now, after two years of relentless bombardment by the regime forces, there is nothing left of either.
“If Bashar had any humanity, he would not make these elections after what has happened,” he said. “He destroyed everything. He destroyed our families. We are refugees here—so how should we accept this?”
Practically, the outcome of the election barely matters in this context. Psychologically, it means everything.
“The substance of the election is of little significance, but its symbolism to both sides of this conflict is what matters,” Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Institution, told Asharq al Awsat. “For those genuinely supportive of Assad, it will underline his continued legitimacy.”
Yahiya said he believed that the implications of an Assad victory would be far more tangible. “Of course, if Assad wins he will try to win back all of the liberated areas,” he said. “He will kill more people.”
Assad’s supporters have claimed that this contest represents a genuine step towards democratization, pointing to the fact that this is the first presidential election since Bashar’s father Hafez took power in 1970 in which ordinary Syrians have been able to pick from a choice of candidates. In previous elections, the voters could vote either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ for the standing president. In the last elections in 2007, Bashar won 98 percent of the vote.
The chaotic scenes on polling day at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut last week certainly seemed to show that a sizeable portion of Syria’s population not only believes that Assad is the best option for now, but the only option, forever. According to Joshua Landis, the director of the Centre for Middle East Studies, those crowds were more symbolic and important than the result of the election itself.
“This election is not about democracy, but it is about za’ama, or leadership, Middle Eastern style,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat. “It doesn’t really matter if the [supporters] . . . are being honest in their affection, it is enough to demonstrate that the great man can turn them out in great numbers to show abject devotion.”
If this is an attempt on Assad’s part to show democratic spirit, it is a weak one. The two opposing candidates, whittled down from the twenty-four who initially registered, are virtual unknowns.
“The two others are just supporters for Bashar,” said Dr. Abu Ali, a surgeon who has worked in a field hospital in Idlib since the start of the armed conflict. “It’s like a trick. If you go to the regime areas, you will not see any campaign posters for these two—just for Bashar.”
This is not the democracy that those early protesters were hoping for when they first took to the streets three long years ago. Since then, of course, those protests have been swamped by an armed insurgency that then morphed into a grotesque and seemingly intractable armed conflict. But in the past few weeks, civil activists have once again been taking a leading role as the voice of the opposition.
“Turning it into an armed conflict was one of the most fatal mistakes of the revolution,” said Sami, one of the founders of the Don’t Vote, Raise Your Voice campaign that has been running on social media in the weeks running up to the election, when we spoke on Skype two days before polling day. Made up of civilian activists inside Damascus and operating wholly in secret, its members urged Syrians living in regime-controlled areas to withhold their vote as a form of protest against the deeply flawed presidential contest. In both method and message, it harked back to the earliest days of the uprising.
“The alternative to Assad is the moderate opposition, not the moderate armed opposition, but the moderate opposition that has preserved its political program and path, and has always called for a peaceful solution,” said Sami. “That’s the path to take right now, because we know that the armed conflict will not result in anything positive. The government cannot succeed militarily, and nor can the opposition.”
This election takes place in the strangest and most brutal of circumstances. As the first voting slips are dropped into the ballot boxes, the regime’s forces will continue to drop barrels bombs on Aleppo, and refugees will continue to pour over the borders. The disenfranchised are also the displaced, the disillusioned and the destroyed—the very people who have lost the most at Assad’s hands in the past three years.
“If you had a president like Bashar, would you vote for him again?” asked Dr. Abu Ali. “How can I vote for my killer?”