Syria’s multi-purpose election
22 Jun 2021|

On 26 May, Syria held its second presidential election since the 2011 revolution. What was described by most observers as a sham yielded an unsurprising result—the re-election of Bashar Al-Assad for a fourth consecutive term with 95.1% of the vote. His obscure opponents, Mahmoud Marei and Abdullah Abdullah, managed to garner just 3.3% and 1.5%, respectively, with official voter turnout reported to be 78.6%.

While the election was neither free nor fair, it served three important purposes: to symbolise Assad’s authority domestically, to facilitate re-engagement with Arab states and to attempt to project legitimacy abroad. Elections in authoritarian states often signal to domestic and international audiences that a ‘mandate has been renewed’ and that the establishment is united behind the president.

Assad’s re-election is particularly important to the regime’s narrowing supporter base. The Syrian pound lost 57% of its value in the past year alone, while prices for basic commodities increased by 313%. Breadlines and kilometre-long queues for fuel have become a regular sight for those living in coastal regime strongholds like Latakia. While some Syrians have seen the regime as an anchor for stability, most are facing unparalleled levels of poverty and a decline in living standards not witnessed even at the height of the country’s civil war. The regime, incapable of effectively addressing the economic situation, opted to deploy the best available tools at its disposal: coercion and fraud.

Government employees and university students were forced to participate in the election and attend rallies or risk being dismissed or detained. Widespread evidence of voter fraud both in Syria and in diplomatic missions abroad—as was the case in Syria’s honorary consulate in Sydney—was also a common sight. Fraudulent results help portray the regime as more popular than it actually is, thereby making revolutions seem impossible.

There were also significant inconsistencies in election results. With 95.1% percent ‘voting’ for Assad, the regime gave up the pretence of presenting ‘realistic’ numbers as it tried to do in 2014, when Assad won with ‘only’ 88.7% of the vote. Damascus has claimed that more than 14 million Syrians voted, despite the fact that the total population in regime-controlled areas is roughly 13.9 million.

The election was also intended to send a direct message to the opposition and revolutionaries who rose up against the regime a decade ago. Assad cast his vote in Douma, a city that was under a brutal five-year-long siege and the main site of the infamous 2018 chemical attack. It signalled to opponents that resistance was futile and that the regime was here to stay. During his televised victory speech, Assad said that, through the election result, voters had ‘redefined nationalism and that also means automatically redefining treason’, a message aimed at labelling all those who continue to oppose the regime as traitors.

Regionally, the election was aimed at encouraging Arab states to mend ties with the regime. Although members of the G7 indicated that the time was not right for ‘any form of normalization’ with Damascus, that sentiment may not resonate with Syria’s neighbours. Arab states continue to flirt with the idea of rehabilitating ties with Assad, as has been seen with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman in recent years. There are reports that Saudi Arabia is set to be next in line. Syria’s return to the Arab League after a 10-year suspension also seems to be just a matter of time. Now that the election formalities have been concluded, Gulf states have begun to lobby the US to ease its sanctions on the regime.

On the international front, the regime used the election as a tool to demonstrate that state institutions were functioning and that the country was safe for refugees to return to—a notion directed towards European states to provide an incentive for the regime’s gradual rehabilitation in the eyes of the international community.

Contrary to Assad’s expectations, the chances of that happening remain close to zero. The foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France and the United States issued a joint statement denouncing the election as a sham. Germany took further measures by banning the conduct of electoral procedures at the Syrian embassy in Berlin.

The election will also have a minimal impact on Syria’s political peace process. The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, indicated that the election falls outside internationally agreed frameworks on resolving the conflict, meaning that any political settlement is unlikely to be obstructed by the outcome of the election.

While prospects for resolving the conflict peacefully in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 remain bleak, it is not impossible. The resumption of nuclear talks with Iran could provide the next opportunity to revive Syria’s political peace process. Negotiations could potentially result in notable concessions by Tehran, such as the withdrawal of its proxies in Syrian territories. Russia has said that it will not rule out early elections should the regime and opposition agree on a new constitution, indicating that the recent elections don’t hold much political value in Moscow’s view.

Given that the regime has consented to the mandate given by the UN-sponsored constitutional committee, and that this new term is the last Assad can contest according to the current constitution, the regime may be forced to sit down at the negotiating table. This could offer another avenue to achieve a much-needed political breakthrough. For now, however, Western powers are more inclined to maintain the status quo and follow a wait-and-see approach to the conflict. Whether we will witness a change in this strategy is dependent on how each of the targeted audiences interprets—and responds to—Assad’s re-election.