Syria will vote in a new legislature Sunday in a campaign marred by reports of vote-buying and overshadowed by a countdown to a US-led war on Iraq.
The new 250-member Parliament that takes office for a
four-year term is unlikely to see any drastic changes in a process that is closely controlled by the state.
After President Bashar Assad came to office in July 2000, speculation arose that the first elections during his tenure would see an easing of the dominance of the ruling Baath Party and its six allies in the National Progressive Front (NPF).
Instead, domestic resistance and regional conditions have worked to stall Syria’s path to reform, meaning little incentive for a radical break with the traditional parliamentary structure.
The regime appeared to acknowledge the banned Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), however. NPF lists in Homs and Qamishli each have an SSNP candidate, while the Nasserite Arab Democratic Party also saw two candidates selected.
SSNP-backed candidates who were not selected will run as independents, and observers believe the move is a first step to seeing the groups join the NPF.
Assad’s stamp on this election round, say observers, involves encouraging the candidacies of “qualified” individuals, meaning those who have university degrees or specialized training, in order to help with drafting legislation.
These candidates, say observers, are showing up on the lists backed by the NPF.
Other key slogans contained in the candidate posters and banners covering the country are “youth,” to reflect the Bashar Assad era, and “industrialist.”
The latter term signals businessmen who invest in the country and provide jobs, as opposed to import-export merchants who are not involved in “productive” enterprises.
The issue of qualifications for office found its way into the weekly satirical newspaper Ad-Domari, which accused the Parliament, from its speaker down to heads of committees, of lacking qualifications and securing their seats through connections.
The newspaper also featured caricatures of the process of vote-buying, which, as usual, figures prominently in the daily discussion of the elections.
The figure of $10 is routinely cited as the price for a vote, and observers say the phenomenon has prompted the authorities to crack down on flagrant soliciting of people’s election cards in exchange for money.
“There has been a backlash, by both the public and the authorities, against the most flagrant forms of this phenomenon,” a candidate remarked.
Although some 10,000 people initially declared their candidacies, the number fell after the NPF announced its lists.
In Damascus, for example, the NPF is fielding 16 candidates for the 29 seats. The rest of the field is left open to what are called “independent” candidates. Here, the role of money is paramount and wealthy businessmen are among the most prominent candidates.
Television mogul Mohammed Hamsho is running in Damascus, where billboards proclaim that the cast of the historical dramatic series Salahaddine back his candidacy.
Hamsho and others are spending huge amounts of money on their campaigns, although reliable figures are hard to come by. Hamsho is part of the Knowledge and Action list, whose members have banded together to help their election chances.
The list also contains a candidate backed by the SSNP, Joseph Sweid, and a “secular sheikh” who writes a column for the daily Tishrin, Mohammed Habash, demonstrating the ad hoc alliances that spring up among the independents.
The candidate on the NPF list said that for the most part, the 2003 election round is largely devoid of content, as detailed campaign platforms are few.
Most candidates’ slogans echo Assad’s “modernization” line, which means general support for reforming the economy and the performance of public sector institutions.
The looming war on Iraq is prominent on various platforms but is not much of an issue, since the regime’s position is not seen as out of step with public sentiment.