In an exercise heavy in symbolism but light in meaning, Syrians will go to the polls on June 3 in an historic vote all but certain to hand President Bashar Assad another seven-year-term. Preparations have been underway for weeks in the capital city, Damascus, where the Syrian flag and posters of Assad are ubiquitous. Technically, this is the first time in decades that citizens will be able to choose between multiple candidates — since Assad’s father Hafez took power in a coup in 1970, presidential terms have been decided by referendum — but the result is widely believed to be a foregone conclusion: Assad is likely to come out of the elections with a new mandate that energizes his base at home and strengthens his bargaining position abroad.
Western powers have dismissed the elections as a farce, pointing out that with nearly three million refugees, more than six million internally displaced and only parts of the country under government control the result will be illegitimate. Nor do they believe that the government can hold a truly free and fair election. But with no viable opponents—the two other candidates, vetted under stringent conditions set by a pro-Assad parliament, are virtual unknowns—“Assad will win even in a completely transparent election,” says Waddah Abd Rabbo, Editor-in-Chief of the nominally independent but pro-government al Watan newspaper. In a country where election turnout has historically been low, the international opprobrium has had the effect of rallying Syrians to vote, even if they know their participation is unlikely to bring change. “Sure, the elections are compromised. But it is not up to [United States Secretary of State John] Kerry to declare they are illegitimate even before they happen,” says Ammar, a shopkeeper from Damascus’ old city. “Maybe this time Bashar wins. But what about next time, or the time after that? Maybe he loses. Give us at least the honor of trying.”
Ammar, who gave only his first name, was keeping an eye on his shop from the terrace of al Nawfara coffee shop, a Damascus institution that has been plying residents with coffee, traditional entertainment and shisha pipes for more than 150 years. Inside the singer-poet Majid Hamdan exhorted citizens to vote in a soaring melody he had composed for a local TV station’s public service announcement. “Go vote for Syria,” he sang to the cameras. “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, just let him be as great as Syria should be.”
The poet Majid Hamdan calls on Syrians to vote
Even though he had strong criticisms of Assad’s regime, Ammar said he was most likely to vote for the Syrian President. Given the circumstances in the country—a conflict now in its fourth year, economic collapse and the rise of extremist groups among the anti-Assad rebels—he opined that it was not the time for change. “At this time Bashar is the only person capable to combat terrorism. He is the only one who can bring back international investment.” But, warned Ammar, he had high expectations, and would be willing to take back his vote in the next election if Assad doesn't deliver. “He has a responsibly to bring democracy and social justice. We have to get rid of corruption. We want good, educated and competent people in the right positions to take our country forward.”
Across town, in the upper-class neighborhood of Malki, five friends from Damascus University gathered at a popular cafe to smoke shisha pipes and watch a football match on the cafe’s giant outdoor screens. When the game ended, the conversation moved from soccer to the upcoming elections. Of the five, four said they would vote for Assad. Alma, a third-year accounting student, said that despite recent events, she owed at least that much to a man who had made Syria so much better over the previous decade. When Assad assumed the presidency upon his father’s death in 2000, he brought in a rash of reforms that radically transformed the lives of most urban Syrians. He brought in the Internet, and mobile phones. He opened the way for private banks and universities, and privately owned newspapers, magazines and TV stations competed with state-run institutions. The economy was booming, and young Syrians, like Alma, believed that things would only get better. “Before the ‘revolution,’” she says, using air quotes, “Syria was the best place to be in the Arab world. Bashar was making changes, and if this crisis hadn’t happened, we would all be in a better place now.”
Life in Damascus ahead of the elections
Mohammad, who like Alma, asked to go only by his first name, disagreed. For the first four months of the uprising, which started in March 2011, he was out on the streets protesting against the government. But when the revolution turned violent, and was taken over by Islamist rebels, he dropped out. That doesn’t mean he has abandoned the cause. When it comes time to vote, he will leave his ballot blank as a form of protest. “Voting white,” it is called, and many disgruntled Syrians said they were considering doing the same.
Maram Daoud, an outspoken member of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, a semi-tolerated, peaceful opposition group with branches all over Syria, says “voting white” legitimizes a process that is riddled with problems. His group is calling for a boycott. “There are 10 million displaced. There are 200,000 detainees. So what kind of ‘election’ is this if half the country can’t vote? We don’t think this will be useful for the Syrian people at all.”
An anonymous Facebook group, Don’t Vote, Raise Your Voice, is also calling for a boycott in a clever English and Arabic campaign that asks how votes can be counted when Syrians are suffering in so many different ways. “People are counting the shells that regularly fall on them...not empty votes incapable of bringing any change..”
But not all opposition groups are pushing for a boycott. “What’s the alternative?” asks Elia Samman, a senior member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, one of the officially recognized opposition groups in Syria. “Should we throw our fate in with [the al Qaeda-affiliated] Nusra Front? The opposition in exile, which is a disaster? No, we have to participate in any political process, no matter how flawed, that lays the groundwork for eventual change.” The SSNP, which was founded in the 1930s, did not put forward a candidate in this election, mostly, says Samman, because party leaders knew they had no chance. And, he adds, “Frankly speaking, even if we had a president today, we have no solution to the crisis.”
Victory in the elections, as with the war, will be Pyrrhic, says Samman. Assad will be responsible for an economy in tatters, a people desperate for jobs, and an infrastructure destroyed. It will take decades to rebuild. One Damascus-based businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, likens Assad to a drunken man who has gone on a destructive rampage, only to be confronted with the damage when sober. “The day after the elections, Assad is going to wake up the president of a country in ruins, and it’s going to be a big headache.”