In his inauguration speech in 2000, President Bashar al-Assad said he did not have a magic wand with which to solve all the problems of Syria. However, fourteen years after he came to power, it is safe to say that Assad’s magic wand is the Syrian Constitution—at least, it has been able to solve all of his own problems.
It is thanks to the constitution of Syria that Assad will win a third seven-year term in office on June 3, 2014. These presidential elections will be no different from previous elections under the Assad regime. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, won the 1971 elections with 99.2 percent of the vote and went on to establish a legal and political system guaranteed to perpetuate his family’s power. In 1973, Syria adopted a constitution that gave the president a monopoly on power and welded the state apparatus to the Baath Party, which was enshrined as “leader of state and society” in the constitution’s article 8.
Despite cosmetic changes, this system still rules Syria. Even if the upcoming elections were democratic and transparent, Assad would win based on his constitutional powers alone.
Reforms to the Constitution
When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, the Syrian parliament amended the constitution to lower the minimum age for a president from forty to thirty-four in order to allow Bashar to take office. A few days later, the Baath Party unanimously elected Bashar as its leader and proposed him as the only candidate for Syria’s presidency. He won with 99.7 percent of the vote and thus began his first seven-year term as president, renewed in 2007 with 97.62 percent of the votes.
Following the start of the March 2011 uprising, Assad implemented a series of reforms in the form of new laws and decrees about media, local administration, and electoral procedures. In November 2011, he appointed (rather than letting the people elect) a committee to draft a new constitution to replace the one introduced by his father in 1973. The new constitution was approved on February 27, 2012. It ostensibly introduced a multiparty system and multicandidate presidential elections—but in reality, nothing changed. Syria’s new constitutional framework is designed to keep Assad in place until 2028 and to let his family retain power forever.
Baathist Control Over the Military
Although article 8 was removed in the 2012 constitution, Assad and the Baath Party remain in control of every facet of Syria—not only of the state and society but also of the military.
Article 105 of the constitution appoints the president as commander in chief of the army. The president also controls the four intelligence agencies that have for decades functioned under the Baath Party’s National Security Bureau.
In addition, the Syrian military still acts as if it were the Baath Party’s armed wing. On April 7, for example, the supposedly nonpartisan Syrian Arab Army celebrated the sixty-seventh anniversary of the Baath Party’s establishment.
Opposition Candidates Barred
The Regional Command of the Baath Party has stated that Assad’s candidacy is “a national duty and necessity” and that it is backed by the “overwhelming majority of the Syrian people.”
In fact, it doesn’t matter what the Syrian people want because Assad is the only candidate who will be able to take office. No well-known opposition figure, such as Michel Kilo or Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, can run in the elections. Most have already been referred to the Counterterrorism Court that Assad established in July 2012. The court is composed of three judges nominated by the High Judicial Council, which is headed by the president in compliance with article 133 of the constitution.
Moreover, article 84 of the Syrian Constitution says that a candidate for the presidency cannot have been convicted of a dishonorable felony, even if he was reinstated. He must also have been a resident of Syria for no less than ten years continuously upon being nominated. Almost all former political prisoners fail these conditions, since they have been convicted on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated information.” In addition, most have left the country after spending years in jail or were driven into exile during the current conflict.
Baathist Hegemony in Parliament
A total of 24 candidates tried to register for the election, but almost all were rejected by the Supreme Constitutional Court appointed by Assad in 2012. Article 85 of the constitution says no candidacy for the office of president shall be accepted unless the applicant has the support of at least 35 members of parliament.
In the February 2012 parliamentary election, the Baath Party and a group of minor progovernment parties from the National Progressive Front, a Baath-controlled alliance created by Hafez al-Assad in 1972, won 168 of the 250 seats. (Of the front’s 168 parliamentarians, 134 are from the Baath Party itself, well above the 126 seats needed for a majority.) The only “opposition” in parliament consists of five seats awarded to the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, a small coalition of government-approved political parties. The remaining 77 seats are for progovernment nonpartisans, all vetted by the intelligence services.
In the end, the Supreme Constitutional Court allowed only three candidates to register, Assad himself, Hassan al-Nouri, and Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, two unknown progovernment politicians. Considering the Baath’s political hegemony, it would not be possible for any candidate except Assad to collect the required 35 signatures from members of parliament, unless the president himself directs his followers to approve other candidacies.
Succession, not Transition
Assad claims that the country is “experiencing an election atmosphere for the first time in Syria’s modern history.” As he spoke, chlorine and ammonia gas bombs were hitting Hama, aerial attacks were striking schoolchildren and civilians in Aleppo, car bombs were killing civilians in Homs and Damascus, and a jihadist group more radical than al-Qaeda was crucifying men in Raqqa.
The atmosphere in Syria is not democratic, it is poisonous. An election under these circumstances will not be legitimate, and in any case, its outcome was determined on February 27, 2012—the day that Syria’s current constitution was adopted.
At this rate, in 2028 Assad will tell his loyal parliament to amend the constitution and lower the minimum age for a president to twenty-six years, allowing his eldest son Hafez to succeed him. He has every right to do so according to article 150 of Syria’s constitution, and article 111 gives him the right to dissolve parliament if it refuses his amendments. Anything is possible, thanks to Assad’s magic wand.
Qais Fares is a Syrian journalist and MA student of Human Ecology at Lund University in Sweden. Twitter: @qais_fares.