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With election charade, Assad bides time
By JONATHAN SPYER
08/05/2012
Analysis: The scheduled vote is part of the strange, alternate reality that the Syrian regime seeks to create around itself.
 
Polling stations for the Syrian “Peoples’ Assembly” election opened at 7 a.m. on Monday. Information Minister Dr. Adnan Mahmoud said the elections would be held in “an atmosphere of democracy and pluralism,” according to the SANA state news agency.

Opposition activists dispute the claim, saying that the current polls are the latest episode in an ongoing regime campaign of window-dressing, of fiddling while the country burns.

The scheduled vote is part of the strange, alternate reality that the Syrian regime seeks to create around itself and the population over which it rules.

The authorities tout the elections as the latest stage in a reform process initiated by dictator Bashar Assad in February. At that time, with world attention focused on the crackdown of opposition forces in Homs, the regime held a referendum on a new constitution. Assad claimed 89 percent of the public’s support for his proposals.

But there is little new about the current elections.

The Peoples’ Assembly is not a newly created body. Rather, it has long functioned as a tame, rubber stamp parliament for the decrees of the regime. It is filled with carefully selected functionaries purported to represent various sectors of Syrian society.

The assembly lacks any real power vis-a-vis the executive and the true machinery of rule in Syria – centered on the Assad family and its security services.

This time around, a number of so-called different parties will contest the elections. However, the new constitution stipulates tight restrictions that preclude the ability of an opposition to coalesce in the legislature.

Parties may not be formed on the basis of religious, tribal, regional, denominational or professional loyalties and affiliations, according to the constitution.

They may also not be linked to any non-Syrian political organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish separatists and groups organized around the centers of the revolt in Homs, Hama, Dera’a and Idlib are likely to be excluded from participating in the election.

Contrary to reports stating that the February reforms permitted political activity aside from the Ba’ath party, the Assad regime continues to govern in a coalition of parties aligned with the Ba’ath in the so-called National Progressive Front (NPF).

The coalition includes the Syrian Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and a variety of other nationalist and leftist groups. The Ba’ath is the dominant partner. The other organizations are criticized as empty shells staffed by aging apparatchiks and regime loyalists.

What has changed? Opposition political forces – registering as regime-approved parties – may stand against the NPF in the toothless Peoples’ Assembly. Eight new parties have registered since the February reforms. They include the Syrian National Youth Party, the National Youth Party for Justice and Development, the Democratic Vanguard, Syria the Homeland, Syrian Democratic, Arab Democratic Solidarity, Partisans and National Development.

In this election cycle, the magic word “democratic” is a ubiquitous presence. In the previous generation, Syrian straw parties labeled themselves with the words “socialist,” “national” and “progressive.”

Those titles bore the same relation to reality as the term “democratic” does in the current vote.

Meanwhile – as a sort of harsh counterpoint to the elections – the real power struggle in Syria continues unabated.

The struggle is fought between a determined insurgency, and military and security forces loyal to the regime.

In Hama, troops clashed this week with rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. In Idlib – despite a recent bloody attempt to pacify the restive northern province by the 76th Brigade of the Syrian Army – the resistance has reemerged.

In eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zor, three opposition fighters were killed by government troops.

This is the real political battle in Syria. As with all real politics, the issue under discussion is that of power. Either the insurgency in Syria will succeed in overthrowing the Assad regime or the dictatorship will defeat the opposition and continue to rule.

The regime’s sham elections will not affect either outcome.
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