Following the recent elections for the People’s Council of Syria held on July 19, 2020, it has become clear that the regime’s sole concern is promoting its vision of how to solve the crisis and its narrative of the conflict, as though the country were not suffering a devastating decade‑long war that has seen half the population displaced and more than 90% of those remaining in Syria sink below the poverty line.

The question that may have perplexed observers is: Why does the Syrian government need to elect a new People’s Council if it is simply going to use the same methods and apparatus as before the war? The regime is required to support reconstruction and ratify the peace process in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), which stipulates that a new constitution must be drafted as the basis for holding internationally supervised parliamentary and presidential elections. Why then bother holding elections that are not recognized by the outside world?

Leaving the people out of the electoral equation

Although the Syrian regime announced that the turnout of eligible voters was 33%, various estimates and pro‑government websites put the actual figure at no more than 10%, stating that the rate of 33% was the result of compulsory voting measures imposed on State employees, university students, and even members of the regime’s military units.

Areas under Kurdish autonomous administration boycotted the elections, saying that the elections reflected the regime’s determination to prevent Syrians from participating in the crisis resolution process. Refugees abroad were likewise barred from voting, which was restricted to those who held a valid passport and an exit stamp from a legal crossing. Of course, the regime also excluded the areas of Syria under opposition control. Consequently, more than a third of Syrians were prevented from voting.

The powers and importance of the People’s Council

Founded in 1928, Syria’s parliament was the first in the Arab world. Given its broad powers, legislative authority, and oversight of the executive authority, its role was so important that every post‑independence president and prime minister had a parliamentary background. It was this control and influence that motivated the Syrian Ba’ath party to suspend parliament when it staged a coup in 1963, and to transfer its powers to the party and military leaders.

President Hafez al-Assad reactivated the parliament in 1971 and renamed it the “People’s Council”. He stripped it of all power, however, turning it into a formal institution that existed merely to support the absolute presidential system. All critical decisions, major legislation, and influential laws became the exclusive remit of the President of the Republic, who was granted absolute powers under the 1971 Constitution, including the right to legislate, appoint the government and ministers, pass laws, reject laws passed by parliament, and even dissolve the Council at will.

Although observers have derided the People’s Council as the “applauders’ council” or the “decorative council”, the Assad regime profited from it in two ways that would come to have a considerable impact on the regime’s stability and hegemony:

1) The transformation of the People’s Council into a space in which to compete for position, influence, and clientelism, in particular among dignitaries and rising entrepreneurs, whom the government would appoint to the Council as a reward and as an indicator of how close they were to the regime.

2) The use of the Council to highlight the “modernist” civilian side of what was in fact an authoritarian military regime. Assad’s regime wanted to portray its actions as legal, constitutionally compliant measures, the most prominent example of this being the amendment to the age criteria for the president so that Bashar al‑Assad could run for the post. Bashar could, in fact, have taken power at that time even without the amendment, given his control over Syria’s institutions and security and military apparatus, and the international community’s acceptance of him in the belief that he would protect Syria’s stability.

The new rising stars

While the 2012 amendments to the Constitution revoked article 8, which stated that the Ba’ath party was “the leading party in the society and the State”, this has not affected the quota of candidates assigned to the party and to its allies in the National Progressive Front. Of the 250 Council seats, 166 are allocated to the Ba’ath party and a further 17 to its allies, where each Council member represents one governorate (the largest administrative division), with only one seat per 80,000 citizens.

Independent candidates, primarily rising economic forces close to the Assad regime, must vie for the remaining 67 seats. The results of these latest elections have reflected the forces that have emerged during the war, with eight militia leaders joining the Council, along with 12 retired officers who had participated in the conflict and several “businessmen” who have come to prominence, such as Hussam al‑Qatirji. Their success came at the expense of pro-regime businessmen such as Muhammad Hamsho and Fares Shehabi, who blamed his defeat on the “alliance between the warlords and the system of corruption”, accusing them of waging a fierce campaign against him. Many Iran-backed candidates also joined the Council, notably militia leaders and a number of economic figures, while Russia displayed no interest in getting any of its affiliates into the Council.

The election of many war profiteers and militia leaders, to the detriment of a large number of leading businesspersons and tribal dignitaries, suggests that the structural map of pro-regime social forces has been redrawn to fit the changes brought about by the war, and in anticipation of the processes that the regime will be asked to carry out in the next phase of the peace process.

Another change in the Council is the proportion of sectarian representation. According to a US study, 39 Alawites joined the Council for the first time, increasing their share of seats to 20%, while 171 seats went to Sunnis, 23 to Christians and five to Shias.

The regime’s objectives for the electoral process

The elections took place in poor economic and social circumstances, against the backdrop of the COVID‑19 pandemic, which remains rampant, according to reports by international organizations. The driving force behind the Assad regime’s insistence on completing the electoral process was its desire to achieve certain objectives, most importantly:

  1. To maintain the status quo within the system, by bringing representatives from up-and-coming groups into government, specifically entrepreneurs, clerics, tribal leaders, family members of killed soldiers, and regime forces, these groups being the fundamental pillar of the government’s stability.
  2. To send the message that all is well to the outside world, in the face of international demands for structural and constitutional changes in response to the political and social changes that have occurred over the last decade.
  3. To create a group of parliamentarians inextricably linked to the regime and its leader and whose prime concern is to keep Bashar al-Assad in power under any circumstance. The current members of the Council will vote on any constitutional amendments that Russia may try to impose through the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee; under the current Council structure, it will be impossible to pass any constitutional clause that reduces Assad’s powers or his term of office. Furthermore, in accordance with the Constitution, the current Council members will be responsible for nominating the next President of the Republic.

Assad therefore wanted to ensure that the Council was comprised of people who had a vested interest in keeping him in power or who were tied to him through the acts of corruption and the violations that Syria had witnessed during the war.

Conclusion

The election process for the Syrian People’s Council reflects the Assad regime’s persistent refusal to make even superficial changes or concessions in the face of domestic or international demands. This will complicate the future of the peace process, prolong instability in the country, and hinder any external attempts to open up and rehabilitate the regime and to assist in the reconstruction.

The election process is a sign of how the regime will handle the tasks that it is required to complete in the next phase pursuant to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, especially drafting a new constitution and holding free and fair presidential elections. In other words, little is likely to change.

The regime is continuing to take a militarized security approach to managing the country’s affairs, and is dealing with internal and external actors as though it has already won the war and is not obliged to make any real changes to its behavior. There is therefore still a long way to go before the war in Syria can really be said to have ended.

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