Syria's election seen as a pledge of 'allegiance' to Assad

Bid to cement his image as only hope to heal war-battered country: Analysts

Election billboards of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for tomorrow's ballot, in Damascus on Sunday. The election is all but certain to deliver a fourth term for a leader already in power for 21 years.
Election billboards of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for tomorrow's ballot, in Damascus on Sunday. The election is all but certain to deliver a fourth term for a leader already in power for 21 years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIRUT • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled the country for over half a century, faces an election tomorrow that is meant to cement his image as the only hope for recovery in the war-battered country, analysts say.

His campaign slogan, Hope through Work, evokes the reconstruction of a country ravaged by a decade-long conflict that has claimed more than 388,000 lives and displaced half of Syria's pre-war population.

In the capital Damascus, Mr Assad's portraits line roads, outnumbering those of his two little-known challengers.

"Syrians will vote to pledge allegiance to Assad and to the system," said analyst Fabrice Balanche.

By holding elections on a regular basis, Mr Assad is attempting to prove "that Syrian institutions are functioning", he said.

The election, the second since the war started in 2011, is all but certain to deliver a fourth term for a leader already in power for 21 years.

Western countries opposed to Mr Assad say the vote is a sham and neither free nor fair - in part because it will be held exclusively in the two-thirds of the country under regime control.

Mr Assad, a 55-year-old ophthalmologist by training, was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.

In the May 26 ballot, he will run against two challengers approved by an Assad-appointed constitutional court, out of 51 applicants.

Electoral law stipulates that candidates need to have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past decade, ruling out all exiled opposition figures.

The other contenders are former state minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mr Mahmoud Merhi - a member of the so-called "tolerated opposition" long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.

Mr Assad issued a general amnesty for thousands of prisoners this month, on top of a series of decrees that aim to improve economic conditions.

His team has released a widely shared promotional video, which opens with footage of explosions and people fleeing devastated neighbourhoods, but then shifts to portray scenes of hope: Inside a classroom, a schoolteacher repairs a hole blown in the wall by artillery fire. A farmer tends to his land.

"Bashar's election campaign emphasises his role as the man who won a war (and) has big ideas for Syria's reconstruction," said Mr Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington. It presents him as "the only person who can manage the resumption of order and reconstruction from the chaos of the Syrian conflict".

According to Mr Heras, Mr Assad's campaign targets international donors more than Syrian voters, to show "he is their only choice for stability after Syria's war".

Syria has lost its status as a regional heavyweight under Mr Assad's watch and is now widely seen as heavily dependent on Russia, Iran and an assortment of Teheran-backed militias, including the Lebanese Hizbollah.

It remains to be seen if Western countries led by the United States will shift course on Damascus by lifting sanctions that have crippled Syria's economy. But they are unlikely to make concessions without an internationally brokered peace settlement, which they accuse Mr Assad of sabotaging.

According to experts, the May 26 vote undermines a UN-sponsored committee set up in 2019 to draft a new Constitution for Syria ahead of elections. Representatives from the regime, the opposition and civil society groups failed to clinch an agreement before the vote.

In the last multi-candidate election in 2014, Mr Assad won with 88 per cent of the vote. This time around, "Assad is running the risk of being the only certainty in a country in ruins", said a European diplomat who follows Syrian affairs.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2021, with the headline 'Syria's election seen as a pledge of 'allegiance' to Assad'. Subscribe