Murad Abdul Jalil |Ninar Khalifa | Muhammad Homs
Voting stations in schools and universities, boxes containing the names of candidates, and walls and streets filled with photos of the most prominent of them with banners pledging loyalty “forever”. This is part of an image the regime is drawing for the “new democratic electoral celebration”, which will take place in Syria in 2021.
This is the date set by the Syrian constitution in 2012 to hold the presidential elections, in which Bashar al-Assad will be the most powerful candidate for a second presidential term according to the constitution, and a third term in reality. This is being currently advocated in pro-regime media, despite the commitment of the Syrian regime to the UN resolutions linking the elections to a comprehensive political transition “that would satisfy all Syrians.”
The Syrian opposition does not recognize the legitimacy of holding elections at the determined time, due to several considerations, most notably their non-recognition of the current constitution, the launching of the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and the following results that must precede the election of a president for Syria.
Nevertheless, the opposition does not have a clear plan regarding the preparations announced by the regime and Russia for the upcoming elections, and not all members of the opposition and civil society lists in the Constitutional Committee are optimistic about the latter’s preparations for elections that would satisfy the Syrians.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the perceptions of the parties of the conflict about the presidential elections to be held less than a year and a half from now, the role of the Constitutional Committee in preparing for them, as well as views on their legitimacy, and the steps to be taken until that time.
Differences in reference and objectives
The regime speeds up the pace to 2021 and the opposition is out of the scene
The Syrian opposition places its hopes on the government formation by the Constitutional Committee, and what it will lead to in drafting a new constitution that would pave the way for free and fair elections under the supervision of the United Nations, and thus the possibility of expelling the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, from the political scene.
The regime and its Russian ally have largely started trying to undermine the constitutional process, by entering into a strategy of procrastination and hindrance, which was evident during the second round of talks, which was held on November 29.
Between the hopes that the opposition is placing on the Committee and the policy of hindrance by the regime and Russia, questions arise about the Russian objectives behind the work of the Constitutional Committee, and the plans of the two parties for the 2021 elections, amid repeated statements from al-Assad and officials in his regime about the holding of elections in their due time and in accordance with the currently adopted constitution (Constitution of 2012), which the Syrian opposition considers lacking legitimacy.
Enab Baladi is trying to find out the reasons that prompted Russia to confirm and stipulate that the committee’s work should not be limited to a timetable, along with the preparations of the two sides (the regime and the opposition) for the elections, especially since the current political scene indicates that the regime is preparing for the 2021 elections.
Russia and the regime are focused on 2021
The follower and reader of the Syrian opposition’s statements since the formation of the Constitutional Committee can notice the great reliance on this committee as an “opportunity for a new political building” in Syria. This was stressed by the head of the Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC), Naser al-Hariri, in an interview with the Turkish Anadolu Agency in September, when he considered the formation of the committee a “real victory for the Syrian people.”
A member of the “political body” in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Yasser al-Farhan, believes that the Constitutional Committee has a specific function in the list of procedures agreed upon by the parties and announced in the Security Council, in which formulation the opposition contributed in a large part, and inserted what it wishes in order to achieve the aspired results.
Among these measures is a constitution draft, which is presented for approval either through a public referendum or by approval of a group of electors (a new parliament or an elected constituent assembly).
Al-Farhan stipulated in an interview with Enab Baladi the availability of a safe environment in light of which the constitution can be approved and elections can be held, considering that the safe environment requires fundamental changes in the symbols and pillars of the regime, in addition to delving into the issues of accountability and the return of refugees and establishing a state of civil peace and national consensus, to build a new Syria free of terrorism and tyranny.
However, the current political reality, the actions of the Syrian regime in the second round of the Committee’s meetings, and the statements made by the officials of the regime and Russia indicate a possible procrastination in reaching the presidential elections in 2021, and a re-election of al-Assad for a new presidential term, amid the opposition’s differences and the absence of fixed political visions and determinants.
Among the Constitutional Committee’s work conditions, on which Moscow insisted, is that the committee’s work shall not be restricted by a timetable and shall be left open. This was confirmed by political researcher Maan Talaa, who believes that the Russians did not bind the Constitutional Committee by a timetable in order to reach the 2021 elections.
In his speech at the Mediterranean Conference in Rome on December 6, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, compared the negotiations on the constitutional process to “the Arab-Israeli conflict”, saying “If we take a look, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the Palestinian cause started from 2001, and has not yet ended to this moment. However, no one is talking about the non-implementation of the Security Council resolutions on the conflict.”
Talaa said in an interview with Enab Baladi that Russia believes that the solution must be in accordance with the international law, and that it cannot be achieved through military intervention. However, it offers at every stage “temptations” related to military matters such as the Astana talks, through which it gnawed the areas that were under the control of factions, such as the eastern and western Ghouta, the countryside of Homs and Daraa.
As for the “second temptation,” it is the Constitutional Committee, on which Russia is playing to delude the opposition that this committee will pave the way for elections that can overthrow al-Assad. However, this proposal is rejected in its form and content, as elections cannot be held in the absence of a stable situation, according to Talaa.
The regime is preparing for the elections
During the past months, Syrian regime officials issued statements confirming that the elections will be held on time, in accordance with the existing constitution without external intervention, as Bashar al-Assad asserted, during his interview with Russia Today (RT) on November 11, that the 2021 elections will be held as scheduled.
“General elections will certainly be held in 2021 in Syria, and there will be a large number of candidates,” said al-Assad, while he absolutely refused to hold these elections under the supervision of the United Nations, and stressed that they would be “completely, from A to Z, held under the supervision of the Syrian state.”
During an interview with the same Russian TV channel on December 24, Walid al-Muallem, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, reiterated al-Assad’s words about the elections, saying that “the constitution does not specify how elections are held, but they are rather determined by the electoral law. We already have this law, but in case a consensus is reached between Syrians in the Constitutional Committee to draft a new constitution or amend the existing one, the elections will be held under the new conditions, otherwise, they will be held according to our existing constitution.”
The researcher Maan Talaa believes that all current matters indicate the resort to the elections, but they will not be in accordance with the concept of international resolution 2254, that is, not within the baskets discussed in the resolution, which provides for the formation of a non-sectarian transitional governing body, in addition to the fact that the Syrian regime is tending towards its periodic merits, in the sense that it does not consider that it is facing a political crisis, and it has worked to conduct all of its electoral merits, whether the Presidency and Parliamentary Councils.
The holding of the 2021 elections will be a declaration of victory for the regime, according to Talaa, as al-Assad will imply that the Syrians want him in power for a second term, and he also wants to turn all the merits, including reconstruction, the return of refugees and economic sanctions to governmental challenges that do not have a political aspect.
As for Russia, it can agree on the holding of elections, in accordance with the international concept, but under the “bazaar policy”, that is, by signing a deal, as it may put the election file forward in exchange for obtaining privileges such as the lifting of the economic blockade, the return of refugees, and the reconstruction process.
However, with the same current intransigence, in Talaa’s opinion, Moscow will adapt to the merits of the “Syrian state” and its need to hold elections, in accordance with the current constitution.
An officer of the Syrian regime forces voting in the People’s Council elections – April 13 (2016)
The opposition is not thinking about the elections, so what are its tasks?
On the other side, the Syrian opposition has been silent about the upcoming elections, as its current priorities, according to a member of the political body of the SNC, Yasser al-Farhan, is the protection of civilians in Idlib, due to the military escalation by Russia and the Syrian regime.
The political opposition is also focusing on achieving a political transition and providing a safe environment, whether for elections, the approval of the draft constitution or for the drafting of a constitution and formation of a transitional governing body, stated al-Farhan, stressing that “the opposition is not taking the issue of elections 2021 seriously at all.”
Al-Farhan believes that in case these elections are held, they would be illegal, as the Syrian regime has no legitimacy, according to international resolutions issued by the United Nations General Assembly, specifically the Geneva Statement.
However, according to Talaa, the opposition is required to possess a set of tools before starting the upcoming elections, the most important of which is the independent decision, “as when you do not have the formation tools, you cannot implement the merit, and the determinants of the political process will remain subject to the conditions of the international community.”
In case the opposition has a political role and tools, it must set broad lines, such as determining the feasibility of the electoral process, working on the issue of refugees and IDPs, the nature of the conditions it sets, and the extent of their flexibility.
From Talaa’s viewpoint, the opposition must also “ensure that war criminals do not enter these elections, and no elections shall be held except under a safe environment, and that there shall be an electoral program, in addition to resolving the dilemma of the electoral representation of the IDPs, especially those who have been demographically displaced from one region to another.”
The 2012 constitution
Conditions that spoil the integrity of the electoral process
In the forthcoming elections, the Syrian regime is based on the constitution that was approved in 2012, which the opposition considers as “illegitimate”, due to the conditions under which it was approved and which are not appropriate to the Syrian situation, especially the procedures of referendum on it, the way it was set, and its details, in comparison with the requirements of the current regime presidency.
The currently adopted Syrian constitution has set several conditions that must be met in those who wish to run for the presidency of the Syrian Republic, within Article 84 of the constitution.
The first section of the constitution stated among its basic principles, in Article Three, that the religion of the President of the Republic shall be Islam, and the conditions included that those who hold a second nationality in addition to the Syrian one cannot run for presidency, the term of the President of the Republic is seven years, and that he can only run for a second term.
In addition, the candidate shall be fully 40 years old with Syrian nationality by birth, from parents who have Syrian-Arab nationality by birth. He also shall enjoy civil and political rights, not be convicted of a heinous crime even if he is rehabilitated, not married to a non-Syrian, and residing in the Syrian Arab Republic for no less than ten years of permanent and continued residence when applying for candidacy.
The 2012 constitution also requires those who wish to run for the presidency to obtain written support from 35 members of the People’s Council, and each member of the People’s Council may grant his support for only one candidate.
The first paragraph of Article 86 of the Constitution specifies that the President of the Republic be elected by the people directly without specifying the land on which he is, whether he is in the countries of expatriation and asylum, or on Syrian lands.
The last point raises fears of oppositionists from the election procedures in accordance with the 2012 constitution, because of the large numbers of Syrian refugees abroad who, it is feared, will be deprived of voting in the elections in an impartial and independent way.
The member of the political body in the SNC, Yasser al-Farhan, believes that any elections in which the Syrian refugees do not participate in a safe, independent, and neutral environment cannot be legitimate.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Farhan indicated that if the Syrian regime-held elections in 2021 before fulfilling the requirements of a safe environment, and before ensuring the full involvement of the United Nations administration and oversight, the elections will not be legitimate, and therefore the refugees will not participate.
Likewise, “the population of the areas controlled by the regime will not be engaged in an impartial and free process, as they will be subjugated to the influence and pressures, which will limit their freedom of choice,” according to al-Farhan.
According to an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its Facebook page, the majority of the voters agreed that the Constitutional Committee will not be able to prepare for fair and free elections in 2021. Thus, 92 percent of about 1600 participants in the poll considered that the Constitutional Committee is a scam plotted by Russia and Iran, until the regime forces dominate the entire opposition-controlled areas; while 8 percent of the respondents believed that the commission is playing an important role in the preparation of fair elections.
Can the United Nations prevent the regime from organizing the elections under the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254?
The Syrian opposition regards UN Security Council Resolution 2254, issued in December 2015, as the main reference for a political solution in Syria.
The resolution, consisting of 16 articles, provides, in its fourth article, for supporting a political process led by Syria, and facilitated by the United Nations, which, within six months, will establish a credible and inclusive provision that is not based on sectarianism.
The resolution sets a timetable for the process of drafting a new constitution, and supports holding free and fair elections in accordance with the new constitution, within 18 months under the supervision of the United Nations.
Although the resolution stipulates engaging the Syrian regime in the political process designed by the United Nations, the Syrian authorities keep talking about holding the scheduled elections on time, in addition to prevaricating in the political process represented today by the work of the Constitutional Committee.
While the Syrian opposition cannot confirm the commitment of the Syrian regime to the UN resolutions, the UN also cannot force al-Assad to work on the political solution, which he accepted.
On the UN recognition of the 2021 elections, Ibrahim Olabi, director of Syrian Legal Development Programme (SLDP), told Enab Baladi that no one should depend entirely on the international system to reject or act on these elections, especially with the presence of Russia and China as both supporters of the Syrian regime.
Rather, the international community should rely on the countries which did not accept the existing constitution, and did not accept the current situation in Syria, according to Olabi, as some countries see the current constitution as legitimate, while other states see it as illegitimate.
In turn, al-Farhan believed that the UN is the party that issued the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and, therefore, is responsible for implementing and protecting such a decision.
He explained to Enab Baladi that “the UN Security Council and its member states are the ones, who drafted the resolution, and the Syrians accepted the agreed terms. Accordingly, if they want to save the credibility of international institutions, international justice and the values and principles on which the United Nations bodies are based, they must act.”
The role of civil society and the implementation of international resolutions
To what extent can the Constitutional Committee change the reality of the 2021 elections?
Since the adoption of the Constitutional Committee at the Sochi conference in 2018, it has been assigned with the task of implementing constitutional reform by drafting a new constitution for the country, or amending the existing one, thereby contributing to a political settlement sponsored by the United Nations in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254.
The two rounds of the Constitutional Committee meetings held on October 31 and November 25, did not lead to any tangible results, and the commission’s ability to make a constitutional change soon, which would affect the reality of the upcoming elections scheduled for 2021, has remained ambiguous.
The UN envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, had announced, prior to the first round of the meetings of the Constitutional Committee that the preparations for the 2021 elections are ongoing, which would be discussed during these meetings.
Pedersen said during an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, on October 24, that he had appointed someone to handle the election file, in addition to considering the possible methods of holding the elections under the supervision of the United Nations, according to the new constitution under the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, in a way which includes all Syrians, who are entitled to participate.
He noted that holding elections according to the highest international standards will take a long time, and that is why he started thinking about how the United Nations could prepare for this task, through dialogue with the Syrian parties.
Civil society most eligible party to guide elections
Civil society forms the broader segment in Syria away from political and partisan alignments, and is therefore the most capable of guiding the electoral track and leading the results in a direction that serves the interest of Syrians from all groups, according to Samira Moubayed, member of the civil society delegation within the Constitutional Committee.
During the past ten years, civil society organizations have undertaken an effective role with regard to political and social awareness, according to Moubayed, which means that civil society will have an important role in the upcoming elections such as working to refute electoral programs, deducing its compatibility with public opinion and ability to serve the Syrian people, and pushing the constructive and progressive visions forward in the face of outdated ideologies.
Moubayed explained in an interview with Enab Baladi that this task is not easy for several reasons, the most important of which is that the Syrian civil society is not organized enough, in unions and organizations, to guide the general electoral course towards serving the interests of the Syrian people.
In addition to working to restructure the civil society in Syria, the revival of this segment requires giving sufficient time for the formation and stabilization of currents stemming from the Syrian society and seeking to achieve the interests of the people.
At the level of the electoral process, the Constitutional Committee is supposed to set the criteria for running for elections “in order to prevent the regeneration of repressive regimes under any form or name”, in addition to affirming the principle of separation of powers in the constitution, ensuring the transfer of power, and ingraining the right to political pluralism, noted Moubayed,
The tasks of the Constitutional Committee will also focus on the importance of local elections, and giving local administrations powers to manage their affairs, including holding elections, in accordance with the principles of transparency and compatibility with the national interest.
Preparing civil society to observe the elections
While talking to Enab Baladi, Moubayed referred to the supervisory role assigned to citizens during the elections, as “each of them is responsible for protecting their right to free and fair elections, in addition to rejecting any kind of bargaining at the expense of the interest of their country and the future of their children.”
A member of the civil society delegation to the Constitutional Committee, Sabah Al-Hallaq, stated to Enab Baladi that she agreed with Moubayed and believed that the civil society organizations should be trained and prepared to observe the elections.
Al-Hallaq stressed the necessity of focusing further on the totality of election mechanisms, and on an election law to which a chapter is allocated within the new constitution, so that the 2021 elections will be free and fair, and that any Syrian citizen can exercise his/her right with full conviction and transparency and take the decision he/she desires, for the first time in 50 years.
She indicated that work is also being done on “gendering the elections” and emphasizing women’s participation, and that a clear and explicit text should be devoted in the constitution, stipulating that “every Syrian citizen has the right to run for election”, and that “all programs and lists related to elections should be perceived from a gender perspective, i.e. taking into account the differences between women and men, gender gaps, and the participation of women in the sustainable development process as well as emphasizing the transitional justice track.
The members of the Constitutional Committee will have to do more if the committee completes its course, and civil society must insist on observing the elections and prepare for it, in addition to ensuring that the elections are held under the supervision of the United Nations.
Stop killing first
Despite the sense of optimism expressed by members of the Constitutional Committee regarding the upcoming presidential elections in Syria, this optimistic view does not seem to be a general one, as the Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Owaid, who is familiar with the work of the Constitutional Committee, believed that the Constitutional Committee’s survival depends on the success of the two main international parties, US and Russia, to stop the killing of Syrians.
Then, the Committee could succeed in drafting a constitution under the auspices of the United Nations, on the condition of forming a “non-sectarian national unity government, release of detainees, and passing the new constitution.” Only then, Syrians can talk about serious, significant and pivotal elections.”
Al-Owaid added in an interview with Enab Baladi that the problem lies in the steps taken by the Syrian regime and its supporters, and the absence of the role of the international community, which leads us to forcibly suspect that the next events will not be in harmony with the Geneva resolutions.
According to al-Owaid, the aforementioned deductions will be evidenced through the primary local elections, which the regime will hold soon in Syria, such as the administrative units’ elections and the People’s Assembly elections, and then the presidential elections, as the Syrian authorities are proceeding with all of this without any consideration for the next stage.
The Syrian journalist indicated that the mission of the Constitutional Committee’s international mandate will be concluded once the new constitution is passed. Thus, the local committees will be assigned to supervise the elections, and each group of these committees will be headed by an international observer at the invitation of the UN.
Is the Committee reliable?
Bader Jamous, member of the opposition delegation in the Constitutional Committee, linked the election procedure to the results of the Constitutional Committee’s work, pointing to the necessity of providing essential conditions for achieving fair elections in Syria; i.e. providing a safe and neutral environment, passing a new election law, separating powers, and establishing an independent high commission for elections as well as the formation of a transitional governing body that will manage the upcoming stage, as “the regime cannot be responsible for supervising all the state institutions, if we want to talk about holding fair elections in Syria.”
Jamous said in an interview with Enab Baladi that work is currently underway to secure these points and the laws which must be changed before starting to prepare for the elections, stressing that ensuring a “safe environment” and “supervising the state institutions” must precede any preparations related to the elections.
Ghena Badawi, the member of the civil society delegation in the Constitutional Committee, assured Enab Baladi that the Committee will be empowered to define the shape of the upcoming elections, and how to detail and execute it, in accordance with general principles.
Badawi indicated that the Committee has not yet reached the stage when it is ready to discuss the various files in relation to the constitution, as its first meeting was meant to break the ice between the existing parties, with no additional results.
Badawi explained that civil society activists, including the ones based in Canada, started to think about the possible ways to work on preparing the Syrian community for participating in the 2021 elections. However, the issue is still under consideration and has not been initiated yet, as she put it.
Badawi also believed that no one should have high hopes for the completion of the new constitution, although it was stipulated in Resolution 2254, in addition to holding elections under the supervision of the United Nations, which is subject to the efforts of all parties regarding this file, which Pedersen started preparing for.
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