Historic Syrian Election Brings Multitudes of Voters

On 28 May 2014, expatriated Syrian nationals in numerous countries flocked to Syrian embassies to begin the voting process in a presidential election.  With all its potential flaws, perhaps even inherent flaws, this quintessential element of democracy is still the most effective means of finding consensus.  As the saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time.  Thus elections provide an opportunity for peaceful compromise.  But to work, democracy requires participation.

President Bashar al Assad is being challenged by Maher Hajjar and Hassan Nouri, even if sneered at by those who label them as merely symbolic candidates.  Yet instead of offering strong opponents to al Assad, those aligned with the opposition parties of the Syrian War have boycotted the election, calling it a mockery, a parody, a joke.  Likewise, many expats have been unable to vote because their host countries have either closed their Syrian Embassies or have banned the election process.  Notable examples are Australia, Belgium, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

As thousands upon thousands of Syrians made their way to embassies around the world to vote, US President Obama addressed the West Point Military Academy and proclaimed that the US would “ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition” and that the US would “coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World to push for a political resolution of this crisis.”  Such a stance is nonsensical.  Isn’t an election the essence of a political resolution?  Instead, the US has led the Western world in denouncing the election as a farce, and in fomenting division.

The context of Syria’s war is long and complex.  The bottom line, however, is that far too many people have suffered.  Many Syrians oppose the al Assad government.  Many Syrians support the al Assad government.  Unless an agreement is reached between the two camps, they will both suffer a dismal war of attrition.  This election could have been an opportunity to take a path of compromise and cooperation.  Instead, it has been refused and ridiculed.

Typical of Western media coverage, the Washington Post reduces the election to a “forceful affirmation of [al Assad’s] tightening grip on power.”  The Post bemoans that “Assad is expected to win easily because there are no serious challengers,” saying that the “constitution has been carefully crafted to exclude political opponents.”  Has it?  The constitution is here, with the relevant section beginning with Article 83.  Perhaps the Post is reading between the lines of what appear to be standard criteria for candidacy, but even the alleged stumbling block of a candidate’s needing approval from 35 of the 250 members of a citizen-elected parliament is surmountable.  The National Progressive Front (aligned with al Assad) gained 168 seats in the May 2012 election, which if assuming absolute party-alliance, still leaves 82 non-aligned potential votes for the would-be candidate.  That pool might have been more, but the opposition boycotted that election as well, thus forfeiting the chance to gain authority.

Again typical of Western media coverage, the Post attempts to explain away the vast numbers of expat voters in Lebanon by saying:

The large turnout here was spurred in part by a widespread rumor that those who do not vote will not be allowed to return home, a question of growing concern for those among the 1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon who support the opposition but are losing hope that the rebels will prevail. Syrian authorities did not say this would be the case, but with all voters having to submit their identity papers to the embassy for registration, it is feasible that the government will know who voted and who did not.

Well, yes, that is not only feasible, but quite normal.  All governments check off the names of those voting in some fashion against a voter registration.  Such an occurrence hardly validates this rumour.  Even if a voter did cast his ballot for al Assad simply to ensure his future ability to return home, it would mean he felt that return preferable than the status quo.  And even if this were the case with some expats, it does not explain away the obvious enthusiasm that is seen in the faces, statements and actions reported across the ideological spectrum.  As the Huffington Post’s World Post reports, support for President al-Assad “was splashed across everything from T-shirts to enormous signs that men carried” as “tens of thousands of Syrians living here [in Lebanon] cast their ballots.”

Of course there are ordinary Syrian citizens — “farmers or dentistsm” as President Obama imagined the “ordinary Syrians” — who oppose the al Assad government. But as you can see and hear for yourself in the numerous reports of this election process, there are also many people who genuinely support his leadership, even after three years of bitter conflict. While the election is surely a lost opportunity for working toward a common good, perhaps the passions exhibited act as a much needed reminder: Isn’t it time for compromise?

Brenda Heard is the founder and director of Friends of Lebanon, London. She can be contacted at: mail@friendsoflebanon.org. Read other articles by Brenda.