Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- ‘Like you see me, beautiful, I see you,” was the slogan raised by one of the candidates for the People’s Assembly* (PA) in the city of Hama in Syria. This came during the first round of legislative elections after the commencement of the ‘corrective movement’ led by the late President Hafez al Assad.
This gem of wisdom was part of an electoral program that was comprised of 13 items; 12 of which addressed domestic issues while the thirteenth was dedicated to the clarification of the candidate’s foreign policy. It said: my foreign policy towards all the world’s countries will remain to be based on the principle of ‘Like you see me, beautiful, I see you.”
After over 35 years have elapsed and eight legislative rounds, each round four years in length, these words of wisdom have become a common saying and a slogan that many of the parliamentary candidates and voters have adopt. Voices are the only thing that the candidates know about their voters, which they in turn use to reach the parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, the majority of the public only sees the MPs as a group who invest in their position so as to achieve their own interests over the publics. They place no hope in them and if there can be something to be expected of them at all it would be nothing more than a price for votes.
Ahmed, 50 years old, is a taxi driver from Latakia who lives in Damascus said that he announced in a number of different electoral circles that he is willing to sell his vote, along with other votes, for the price of 3,000 Syrian Pounds (SYP) [the equivalent of US $60] per voice. Apart from that, he will not participate in the elections, he doesn’t know who is running and knows he won’t benefit from the elected candidates later. When asked about his right to vote as a citizen, he shook his head and said: the caravan will continue to move with or without our participation.
The Interior Ministry has estimated 19 million Syrians eligible to vote, the number of ballots that submitted were 7 million and 600,000 ballots, while 12,425 polling centers were allocated, which comes to the ratio of one center for every 1,000 voters. However, what was noteworthy during the announcement of the nominations was the large number of candidates who numbered 9,770 of whom 1,004 were women. Yet, 1,172 withdrew so over 9,000 remained contending for 250 seats which are divided into two sectors: 127 for workers and farmers and 123 for the remainder of the public.
The National Progressive Front (NPF) has 131 seats [52 percent of the 250 in parliament]. It is formed by 10 parties of leftist, nationalist and socialist inclinations all of which are part of the coalition of ruling parties led by the governing Baath party. The Baath party leads the front numbering 134 candidates men and women alike. Other parties nominated a total of 36 candidates, while 83 seats were allocated to independent candidates in parliament.
However, the large numbers of candidates were not met with enthusiasm by the public.
From the start, the campaigns drew sharp criticism from the Syrian street and the press, especially in the official papers. There was talk of people’s growing reluctance to participate in voting, which prompted the Syrian authorities and the NPF to exert efforts into galvanizing a public that was apathetic towards the elections. The NPF’s central leadership released consecutive statements in which it called upon Syrians to “exercise their civic duty by voting for their representatives at the ballot boxes,” urging them to, “choose the candidates who are most qualified and competent to represent them and serve their interests.” And yet there is an almost universal conviction that the front does not require voting and announcing its candidates’ names signifies that they have been appointed by the parliament. It is possible for the ruling Baath party to steer its members towards voting for the candidates that are required to succeed within the front – the Baath party form the majority in Syria with approximately 1.5 million members. In previous electoral rounds there have been cases where celebrations for successful NPF candidates were made before the electoral results were even announced.
This year, one of the NPF candidates in the Homs province demanded that his colleagues put an end to this custom because “it kills the credibility in the voting process and spreads the negativity and apathy that the authorities are trying to evade in this round,” he said.
The NPF candidate, Emad Ghalyoun affirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that, “this is a shameful practice, voting is necessary even if it were only a façade so that people do not forget that they have a right to vote and that they can change the situation if they so wished.”
But there is a reality that imposes itself on the electoral scene; the NPF candidates do not need to spend money on their electoral campaigns which cost hundreds of millions of Syrian Pounds. Those who observe the abundance of advertisements on the streets cannot help being astounded at the amount spent on ads, estimated in this round at SYP 3 million, which marks a first in terms of cost. Undoubtedly that does not cover a quarter of what the candidates squander on the various means of advertising: roadside advertisements, electoral tents and banquets – especially those set up by senior financers and traders. There is blatant, distasteful extravagance, the tents are spread out on the street pavements and squares, transformed into forums for banter with reception rooms furnished in the most grandiose of Eastern and Western furniture: mosaic chairs inlaid with bone, mother of pearl and silver, in addition to luxurious leather and wooden chairs and silk, velvet and chiffon curtains and carpeted floors.
Each tent reveals the financial capabilities of the campaigner, some play the popular national dabka songs while others can accommodate up to a thousand people and in which over 25 bands perform, each band with a lineup no less than 20 musicians – that is to say nothing of the waiters that mill around with trays of bitter coffee, lemon and cumin infusions, tea, water and sweets.
Another tent plays Fayrouz songs about the national love of the Levant while screens display large and clear images of the candidates. In another tent, for lack of money, the candidates have resorted to hosting tariqa sheikhs who perform zikr circles and give religious lessons and advice to appeal to the simple.
The sheer extravagance begs the question: How can it be after all this spending that anyone other than the wealthiest would win the parliamentary seats? Some would argue differently, especially after the announcement that the Homs province has banned the exploitation of the advertising campaigns such as setting up tents in public places or hanging posters or banners in locations that are not designated for campaigning. Fines imposed on candidates thus far have reached SYP 207 million, one candidate faces a fine for littering worth SYP 9 million – three times the sum allocated for his campaign. What is worrying is that ‘flouting regulations’ can be used as a way to influence the outcome of the elections.
Undoubtedly the size of the capital allocated for the elections is responsible for making the people disregard the importance of voting; “money talks,” says one. It was clear that the electoral campaigns had surpassed the permissible budget; manipulation, the signing of photographs, in addition to posters with the names of candidates and entities that were ‘hung up by friends and supporters’. According to a source he was surprised to find his name on one of the posters in support of a candidate.
Rami, 26 years old, says that those who invest such amounts must be too engrossed checking their calculations and accounts that they would be left with no time to think of the people’s needs. Out of curiosity Rami entered one of the tents but also to fulfill his father’s request who was an employee in a company owned by one of the candidates in hope of securing a job for his son as the elections offer temporary jobs for the youth who hang posters and recruit voters.
But the elections also act as a catalyst for the ‘electronic’ market; many candidates have created their own websites where they receive opinions and suggestions while following up with the youth. One company tried to create a website to feature all the running candidates, providing a small blurb on each. Each site is a virtual tent that is no less extravagant than the street tents where discussions are had and insults exchanged between candidates.
One tent, modest when compared to others, was set up by three candidates; one of whom spent a mere SYP 7,000 who said he paid it only to make his presence known. Another 70-year-old candidate said he was the world’s only cosmologist, printing a black and white picture of himself when he was younger set against a background of a battleship named ‘Jean Bart’. Under the picture he wrote: In 1956 we sank it, likewise the ‘Eilat’ destroyer in 1967 and the battleship ‘Saar’ in 2006. Also inscribed was, “a sun that is 226 light years away from us has a number of inhabited planets.” The ‘cosmologist’ didn’t elaborate on his relation to these symbols or in terms of his electoral program but showed an evident fondness for the microphone while addressing the attendees as he showed off his astronomical knowledge that was blended with theology.
The audience witnessing the aforementioned candidate was mainly women and children, the families of the third candidate who owned the tent. This candidate began to modestly and gently outline his goals and the aim of his candidacy, which was to make the people’s voices heard in the government and to resolve their problems seeing as he came from a family that was dubbed ‘half a loaf and a zucchini’, because of the charity work they undertook by distributing bread and vegetables to the needy. This candidate states that he entered the elections because he was a discontent citizen who was fed up with MPs who upon attaining the seat forgot about the people, thus pledged that if he won the seat he would publish his phone numbers in the newspapers so that the citizens could reach him and make their demands heard.
And yet this is precisely what NPF candidate, Emad Ghalyoun considers, “a big error in the candidate understands of the nature of parliamentary work. The PA is a supervisory authority that monitors the government’s performance as an executive authority – not an office for services and complaints. When the PA does not meet the required services it appears ineffective and therefore loses confidence,” he said. This error means that the PA is no longer responsible for the people; the MPs are the ones who bear the brunt of the reasonability fulfilling the demands, while the wealthy enter into parliament greedy for the immunity it provides, and to support the decisions and decrees that serve their interests.
The economic changes in Syria and the move towards ‘social market economy’ over the past two years, in addition to regional events and the rise of the religious tide in the region is reflected in Syria’s parliamentary elections so that the candidates are divided between independent businessmen and clerics. Much emphasis is placed on images and appearances, some candidates ‘Photoshop’ their pictures while others dress up and strut around stopping at nothing to get themselves elected while they are joined by men, women and youth on the street.
Former parliamentarian and current candidate Dr. Muhammed Habash sums up this campaigning without any clear electoral programs by citing a prophetic hadith: “One gets intimate with a women for four reasons: her money, standing, beauty and religion.” He said, “the candidate is likewise elected for four reasons: money, he presents himself in accordance with this monetary logic. As for beauty there are candidates who wear makeup and coif their hair. For their standing, they flaunt their status and positions. As for their religion, it is their duty to fulfill it.
Ghalia (26 years old) standing inside one of the tents has decided to vote for the most beautiful candidate in her own view, because “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty”. She saved the candidate’s picture on her mobile phone, which only confirms the notion that beautiful appearances are more important in our times where outward beauty takes precedence over inner content. The more beautiful the candidate the more votes he/she gets.
Fifty-year-old Samira who is an agricultural engineer said that the pictures of candidates remind her of the ones some hopefuls desiring marriage send to the matchmakers in search of a potential spouse. She said most usually the picture has nothing to do with reality, which she thinks is the same in this case. She added that the candidates do not propose plans or declare their ambitions and offer unrealistic and implausible slogans such as, “fighting against corruption, unemployment, rise in prices and overpopulation.”
The NPF proclaim slogans and launch campaigns that are no different from what is in the official newspapers – the same old words. The result is that the majority are not concerned with the elections except with what can be beneficial to them.
Marilyn (20 years old) said that she will not participate in the elections because she did not like the pictures of any of the candidates and does not believe in any of the brazen slogans that they raise. Graduating from school she was not accepted in any of the universities or institutes and thus stays unemployed at home awaiting an opportunity to learn a craft such as sewing or hair dressing to ensure her financial independence, nothing more. However the community’s priest has asked all his community members in a rural town in Damascus to participate in the election to fulfill their civic duty. Fearing his anger or deviating from the community, she is contemplating voting. Add to that the fact that her uncle has asked the members of her family to vote for a particular candidate. Marilyn said that she was wavering between the decision she made to not participate in the elections and between fulfilling the requests of her uncle and the priest, “I don’t know what to do. I’ll probably surrender since I’ve got nothing to lose,” she said.
But the candidates are aware of the difficulty of getting the street to interact and participate in the elections, the people have not been swayed and with religious sentiment on the rise, the majority of candidates have resorted to religious symbols. One candidate has a portrait picture against the backdrop of al Amawi Mosque in Damascus, while some Christian candidates voluntarily used biblical verses in their campaign, in addition to those who took it a step further to use pictures of mosques and churches juxtaposed in the background. Even those renowned for their secularity have raised slogans with phrases like, “loving your nation is an act of faith.”
Mohsen, 25 years old has decided to vote for the young pious sheikh who is the imam who preaches at the mosque where he prays. He said that this sheikh will be the voice of faith and that the devout will gather under the mosque dome while the imam serves religious matters. Mohsen believes that the clergy will be more effective than the traders who have no care other than their personal interests and that the former will spread good values and protect the society against corruption and vice. Moreover, he also said that generally speaking he believed that the Syrian street will opt for the religious candidates, the proof of which is illustrated by the fact that most candidates raised religious slogans.
But Habash does not consider it strange that the candidates are adopting spiritual symbols from civilization in their campaigns – the Syrian street is a pious one, he said. He pointed out Syria does not have a truly secular trend such as those found in the West. He added that no political party works against religion and that even the Communist party cannot be fully red [in its beliefs]. Regarding the people’s apathy towards participating in the elections, “our parliamentary institution remains weak, we cannot boast and say that we have achieved a full parliament such as the ones in developed countries. Nonetheless, Habash has anticipates that there will be a bigger turnout at the polls. He said that the large number of voters points towards the growing awareness of the necessity of participating – there are 100 candidates in Damascus contending over 29 seats.
But Rida Ali Tayib disagrees with Habash and maintains that the increase in the number of voters may be interpreted differently. He explains that this rise does not indicate a growing awareness but rather points towards the traders and the clerics among the voters to further their own ends: they want the candidates of their choice to win so they can empower them and reinforce their monetary and social influence with political clout while protecting their interests and achieving their projects, both the religious for the clerics and the business ventures for the traders. As for the modest candidates, many of them just want to star in electoral campaigns to fill up a gaping hole in their lives as a reaction to the marginalized existence they lead. They try to appease themselves by hanging up their pictures everywhere pretending to be famous.
Ghalyoun, an NPF candidate said that he nominated himself out of a desire to actively participate and “so that we don’t keep criticizing without trying to take constructive action,” he added. He is adamant to partake in this experience despite the unpredictable results and hopes that he can present a different image for parliamentarians adding that his participation is not for personal gain but rather for the greater good and thus efforts must be exerted to make regain the trust between the people and their representatives in parliament. Ghalyoun pledged to be a true MP – I promised to remind him of these words in four years if indeed he won the seat.
Although it cannot be generalized, these recent developments point towards the large-scale participation that can be anticipated, while highlighting the authority’s fear of the drop in voting, spreading an abundance of reassurances and pledging that the elections will be more fair. The Syrian Interior Ministry has confirmed that no citizens will be allowed to vote if they are not personally present at the polling center with their ballots. Other measures include: the use of a special ink when writing down the names of the favored candidates so as to avoid multiple voting and fraud and the ink must fully dry in the duration of 30 seconds before being added to the ballot box, which will be transparent. Any violations will subject their perpetrators to legal action in accordance with Articles 319 and 343 of the Penal Code.
Some believe there is an unprecedented strictness in then Syrian elections could indicate more honest elections. Radwan Ulaywi, a Homs province native, recounts a time when candidates were interested in getting the votes of the clan leaders and village chiefs, requesting their support in return for gifts and favors. He said, “During one of the rounds, I remember a village chief filled up a huge bag with people’s identity cards and handed them over to one candidate. It later transpired that he had received SYP 25,000 in return for it – maybe more.” Radwan hopes that these stricter rules will put an end to selling votes and exploitation, particularly of the elderly and the housewives who find it difficult to get to the polling centers.
A candidate from Homs took precautionary measures despite the promise of tighter regulations, writing his details on the complaint cards and leaving them blank but numbered so as to not waste any time in reporting any deviations or manipulation. He is convinced there will be foul play because he says there are officials who want certain people in the PA.
According to Syrian law, every voter has a right to challenge the validity of a candidate’s success if they voice their objections two days after the name of the winner is announced. This takes place in front of a specialized judiciary authority. But there have been no cases like such; attitudes are ones of submission in the face of the announcement of results.
But the Syrian parliamentary elections are not considered a special case in comparison to parliamentary elections in other Arab countries – in fact, they may be considered the leading ones in terms of women’s participation. Generally speaking, Arab parliaments cannot be considered to be entities that possess an independent authority. The fact that they are rejected by the public does not indicate their decline because it does not stem from purely political reasons – which is the case with the opposition. In Damascus the opposition declared its boycott of the elections and many have not attached much significance to the act maintaining that the opposition are a minority to start out with and thus cannot have a significant impact on the society. As such, people’s lack of receptiveness to the opposition’s actions stems from reasons that are not related to political stance and are closer to incapacitation, marginalization, exclusion from politics and the absence of pluralism.
Abou Mahmoud says that although he is not partial to any of the contesting candidates he will vote anyway and make sure his 10 children do, as well as urging other people to vote simply so that the opposition does not believe that it has achieved a victory.
The results will be revealed tomorrow, April 22 and even the people’s lack of participation will not prevent 250 MP from occupying the seats in the Syrian People’s Assembly in a term that lasts four years.
*The Syrian parliament is the unicameral People’s Assembly (Majlis al-Shaab).