Syria dictator Assad consolidates position

Election was conducted at a time the government controls only 60 per cent of the territory.

The landslide vote for 14-year incumbent Bashar al-Assad in Syria's first ever multi-candidate presidential election has not only solidified his position at home with a majority of his own people but has also undermined efforts by his Western and Arab opponents to force him to stand down or change course.

 According to the official count, Assad won 88.7 per cent of the vote and secured a turn-out of 73.4 per cent in an election conducted while fighting a war.  In many places voters braved insurgent snipers and mortars to cast their ballots, including “hot” districts around the capital visited by the Deccan Herald.

Western political figures and commentators make the point that the election was conducted at a time the government controls only 60 per cent of the territory of the country. However, fields, trees, mountains and semi-arid desert do not vote in elections. According to the UN, 85 per cent of Syrians living in their homeland dwell in areas under government control. Therefore, voters belonging to only 15 per cent of Syria’s 22 million inhabitants were excluded from the poll and tens of thousands of the 1.3 million refugees living in Lebanon cast ballots either at their embassy or by returning home on election day.  Syrians in other countries also voted at diplomatic missions.

Assad's rivals, businessman Hassan al-Nouri and Communist Maher Hajjar, provided little competition because Assad is seen by the majority of Syrians who voted for him - even those who do not like him and blame him for the troubles – as the only man who can end the conflict that has devastated the country over the past three years, killed 100-160,000 people, rendered six million homeless in their homeland, and forced three million to flee.

The election results boost both Assad's legitimacy and credibility and should also strengthen his hand in dealings with powerful military, political, and business interests which have blocked much needed domestic political and economic reforms ever since he took power upon the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled previously unruly and unstable Syria with an iron hand from 1970 to 2000.

The younger Assad, a Syrian- and British-trained eye doctor who never thought he would assume the presidency, introduced the internet and mobile phones, promoted tourism, and transformed the Syrian economy from a centralised command system into the free market system.  While his economic policy made 100 millionaires, and allowed the middle class to prosper, the poor suffered. Drought between 2006 and 2010 devastated the farming sector and prompted peasants to settle in slums on the outskirts of Syria's main cities: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Displaced, undereducated, unemployed rural youngsters have been recruited as cannon fodder by the hundreds of armed opposition factions prosecuting the war against the government which is gradually containing them and imposing ceasefires on insurgent strongholds.

No hard decisions

Assad’s first task will be to appoint a new prime minister.  Unfortunately, the government he is expected to form may not take the hard decisions required to halt economic deterioration, tackle corruption or adopt the major reforms needed for development and reconstruction which could cost $100 billion. A Damascene analyst told The Deccan Herald that the ruling Baath party has still not learned the lesson of the ongoing crisis: that the poor can revolt if neglected.

The party, which took power in the 1960s promising social justice, has “forgotten its mission and many of its members have become part of the commercial elite.” However, in one or two years time, once the regime has pacified the country, he believes reforms will be enacted because the party and elite will see that there will be no money for reconstruction if there are no reforms.

Former legislator George Jabbour said, “What is important on the ground is national reconciliation. All detainees and kidnapped people must be released. The government will have to deal with armed groups, as the US did to release a soldier in exchange for five Afghan Taliban" held in the US prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

“We must re-establish the rule of law and differentiate between political, religious and ordinary crimes. Once there is justice there will be security. We must get refugees and displaced people to return to their homes and end the economic crisis.” Assad must recognise that “he enjoys the confidence of a majority of the people” and appoint a new team of advisers to deal with the new political situation. Criticisms of the president put forward during the campaign will encourage citizens to follow the example of his two rivals.

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