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April 29, 2014

In Syria, Phony Ballots amid Real Bombs

With 2.7 million Syrians having taken refuge beyond their country’s borders and 6.5 million more having fled their homes and sought shelter elsewhere within the country, almost half of Syria’s pre-war population is displaced. Over 150,000 have been killed, and at least 9.3 million people within Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Many of them are trapped in besieged neighborhoods that the government has decided to starve into submission as part of its war strategy.

Amid this carnage and chaos, the Assad regime has decided to hold what it calls elections on June 3rd. Bashar Assad’s parliamentary spokesman read a letter before Syria’s Parliament on Monday in which he stated: "I Dr Bashar Hafez al Assad wish to nominate myself for the post of president of the republic, hoping that parliament will endorse it." Assuming he wins the required support of 35 members of parliament, he will join six other candidates, none, of course, representing the opposition.

In the past, Syria held presidential referendums in which the reigning Assad, father or son, came away with 97, 98, or 99 percent of the vote. This was no surprise as voting was far from free or fair.

In an effort to make the upcoming elections appear legitimate, last month the Syrian Parliament passed a law which allowed other candidates to run. But that same law restricted the candidate pool to those who have lived in Syria for the past ten years, effectively barring many leading members of the opposition.

Speaking on NPR, Bassam Haddad, director Middle East Studies at George Mason University and co-founder of Jadaliyya, described the elections as political theater and a farce in which only Assad’s supporters will take part. The elections will change little for the people of Syria. When asked if they are an affront to the Geneva talks, Bassam Haddad replied that they are, but no more so than the barrel bombs with which Assad has attacked the citizens whose vote he now pretends to court.

Although Parliament Speaker Mohammed Jihad Laham said that citizens outside of the country will be called upon “to exercise their right in electing a president," no one is taken in by this. Syria’s citizens, refugees and inhabitants alike, know that they have no say in their government. This message is reinforced by Monday’s announcement that “unofficial refugees,” meaning “Syrians who left Syria illegally,” will not be granted the right to vote. How that broad definition will be interpreted is anyone’s guess, but the regime might decide to apply it to a huge proportion of Syrian refugees, including those who left without government permission as well as those who entered a host country without that government’s permission.

A Syrian refugee in Beirut who fled Damascus earlier in the year expressed frustration with the media’s use of the term elections: “It’s not an election,” he said, “it’s a coronation.” On the other end of the spectrum, a pro-government teacher in Tartous recently told Syria Deeply, “The elections won’t be democratic. It is simply to show that most people solely support Assad. Because one can’t talk about democracy during war.” One thing for certain is that Syria’s sham election June 3 will do nothing to bring an end to this devastating conflict.

To read more about Human Rights First’s work on the Syria crisis, please see our report, Refuge at Risk.