One thing about the ongoing crisis in Syria almost never mentioned in our media — even the alternative media — is the role of the nonviolent opposition to the Baathist regime. After the uprising began in the spring of 2011, the government engaged this opposition in discussions about reform of the Syrian political system. Out of these discussions came a new constitution, approved in February 2012 by 90% of the electorate in a popular referendum with a 57% turnout rate.
Prior to the new constitution, Syria was officially a one-party state: the Baathist party, to which the current and former president belonged, being that party. In 2007 the nomination by the Syrian parliament of Bashar al-Assad as President of Syria was approved by 98% of the electorate with a 96% turnout rate — just the sort of mandate you would expect of an authoritarian regime. Under the new constitution Syria became a multiparty state; elections to parliament were open to any political party.
In May of last year parliamentary elections under the new constitution were held. There were two blocs contending for the vote: the pro-government National Progressive Front, comprised of 6 parties, and the oppositional Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which included two parties. Of the 250 seats in the assembly, the Baathists won 134 seats with 34 seats distributed among the other parties in the National Front, including 6 seats for the two factions of the Communist Party. The opposition shared 5 seats. Seventy-seven members of the new parliament were not affiliated with any party. The constitution stipulates that at least half of the members of the assembly must be workers or farmers.
In other words, the Syrian parliament encompasses a diversity of opinion we can only dream of seeing in our own Congress — quite a coup for the nonviolent opposition. An election for President is scheduled for next May, quite a concession for a man our media labels a “thug”, “dictator”, “tyrant”, especially as most governments, including our own, when facing a stressful situation become more authoritarian (e.g., Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Palmer Raids of the 1920s, the Patriot Act, etc.) . What more does the violent opposition want? No wonder they have to rely on foreign Jihadists to do their fighting!
Critics of the Syrian regime will claim the elections were fraudulent, or, as the Obama administration put it, “ludicrous”. I have no idea whether this is the case and would welcome the views of those better informed than me. I suspect critics of the elections seldom offer any supporting evidence for their claims. Every country grapples with seeing that their elections are fair (cf. Voter ID laws). Before we dismiss the newfound democracy in Syria as a sham, maybe we should give it a chance, especially as the lives of thousands of people — mostly Syrian but perhaps some of our own — are at risk. If the administration’s goal in Syria is regime change, maybe it should wait and see whether the Syrian people effect it in a peaceful manner next spring or, if the incumbent is re-elected, accept the fact that democracy doesn’t always work out the way we would like.
Postscript: If you didn’t know about recent political developments in Syria, don’t feel bad. I attended an event today where none of the speakers — neither Cole Bockenfeld and Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) nor Shadi Hamid, Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution — were aware of the elections held under the new Syrian constitution.