A new constitution to curb Syrian unrest

With the removal of Article 8, Baath could lose control of trade unions and other organisations.

Last Sunday Syrians voted in a referendum on a new constitution and nearly 90 per cent of those who took part approved the document, designed to usher in multi-party rule.

The very fact that 57 per cent of eligible voters participated, demonstrated that a majority is prepared to give the beleaguered government headed by President Bashar al-Assad a fresh chance to make the transition, although his opponents in the country’s opposition, the Arab world and the west insist that he must cede power without further bloodshed in the 11 month long uprising.

The UN estimates that 5.400 civilians died last year alone while the government contends that 2,000 soldiers and security personnel have been killed by externally financed and armed rebels.

The most important change in the new charter is the deletion of Ariticle 8 of the 1973 constitution which states that the Baath party has the leading role in the political life of the state. The removal of this article has been one of the main demands of the domestic opposition for years.

The approval of the document is the first step in the government’s plan for transition from Baath party domination to multi-party rule. The second step will be parliamentary elections in three months time and the third, a presidential poll in 2014, if not before. The new constitution is celebrated by the authorities as a victory because the consultation was relatively free at a time the country is torn by civil conflict and beset by external powers determined to effect regime change. The hard line opposition dubbed the constitution a fraud.

Unhappy compromise

It is, in fact, seen as an unhappy compromise by many Syrians disappointed over the drafting committee’s failure to make more dramatic changes. The removal of Article 8 made them vote in favour.

The protesters who took to the streets last year initially called for an end to the emergency law, the opening of the political system to parties that are not part of the national front dominated by the Baath, and the cancellation of Article 8. The government formally ended the state of emergency and authorised the registration of new parties last summer.  With the adoption of the constitution, the regime argues that it has met all three demands.

This contention is rejected by the opposition and its Arab and western backers.  They say the new constitution is "too little, too late."

Since Baath members turned out in great numbers to vote in favour, they were essentially abandoning the party’s primacy. This means it will be obliged to share power with current National Front partners as well as independents of the Muslim fundamentalist persuasion and new parties.

Because of a ban against parties based on religion, sect or ethnicity, the Baath party’s main rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, will support independents rather than field its own candidates.

Analyst Nabil Sukkar said that the Baath, the most organised party, is likely to retain a majority in a new national assembly. Fundamentalist independents, Communists, and members of the Syrian Social National party, popular with secularists and Christians, could make good showings.  Disorganised secular liberals could be marginalised, like the revolutionaries who staged the Egyptian uprising.

The removal of Article 8 will have wide repercussions. The Baath could lose control of trade unions, professional associations and other organisations the party has  dominated for decades. During the coming Baath party congress, some predict that Assad will step down as secretary general of the party in order to become "president of all the people."  This could led to major changes in the party’s senior leadership and the rise of new faces.

There is also speculation that Assad will not stand for re-election when his term expires in 2014. The government’s plan for the transition to multi-party rule is, however, far from sure thing.  Two days before the referendum, 60 countries, including India, attended a high level "Friends of Syria" gathering in Tunis to formulate a strategy to end the violence in Syria and topple Assad.

They failed because there are serious divisions between the main external actors.  The US and Britain do not want to become involved in military action and say they reject arms transfers to rebels. France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, elements of the external opposition, and the rebels call for weapons for insurgents and external protection from outside powers.

The hard line Arabs, who have been smuggling arms and funds to the rebels for months, reject dialogue with the government which was not invited to attend. Internal opposition groups favouring dialogue were also not invited.

Russia and China were asked but refused to go, aligning themselves with the government. Such disputes among external actors have prolonged the killing and made it impossible for their Syrian allies to unite and  reach an accord on a new system of governance.

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