Experts say Bashar al Assad held an election to force Syrians into submission and give his few international supporters a reason to keep backing him. Can he succeed, though?
The elections in Syria have set off a tsunami of jokes and memes on social media with critics seeing it as Bashar al Assad running against Bashar al Assad.
Assad's loyalists organised celebrations of his so-called re-election for the third time without feeling the need to wait for the actual vote to take place on May 26. It became clear that both the loyalists and the opposition knew very well in advance that the polls will show Assad as a victor.
“On the occasion of Syria and Bashar Al-Assad’s victory, two brothers (artists) invite you to celebrate Assad’s victory in the main elections,” reads a poster that circulated on social media.
“Long live Assad,” the poster concluded.
Like his father Hafez al Assad, Bashar al Assad deployed ruthless tactics to stay in power as long as possible. While Hafez ruled Syria for 29 years, Assad completed 21 years in the position of power, although his reign is stained with the blood of thousands of Syrians who stood up against his tyranny in 2011.
For Syria watchers, the election carried a clear message — that Assad aims to retain power, not necessarily by persuasion but by force.
For Thomas Pierret, a senior researcher at The Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds (IREMAM), an election under Assad's rule is a "power display" and a "ritual" which is meant to force people, particularly those who live in former opposition-held areas, to come to the ballot box and "enact their own submission to the regime".
“The main purpose of the election was not so much to target the regime supporters but those Syrians who don't support Assad but live under Assad's control,” Pierret told TRT World.
Assad’s loyalists have been increasingly raising their criticism of the regime amid a hard-hitting economic crisis that pushed the country's poverty line to around 90 per cent. But his hardcore supporters remain as loyal as ever. To prove his allegiance to Assad, one commander put up a show by cutting his chest with a knife and marking the ballot paper with his blood.
Pierret argues that Assad is not interested in winning the hearts of the opponents either. The country’s Interior Ministry said around 1.8 million Syrians inside and outside of the country were marked “ineligible to vote.” The reports suggest there has been immense pressure on local residents in the areas formerly held by the opposition to publicly enact their submission to Assad.
“He's willing to force the people who live in these regions (into submission) because they’re still seen as enemies and as traitors to the regime,” Pierret said, adding that Assad wanted to force them to publicly display their loyalty to the regime.
“It's very symbolic that the place selected to vote was the city of Douma, a stronghold of the opposition for many years,” he says.
The city is famed as the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. The regime and its allies, however, later flattened the city in a bid to recapture it. They are accused of carrying out a chemical gas attack that remains one of the deadliest atrocities of the Syrian war.
Can Assad impress the international community?
Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian opposition figure and a journalist, tells TRT World that with the election, Assad wants his handful of supporters, including Egypt, China, and some other Arab countries, to have some justification for supporting him amid international pressure.
“This way, these countries can say, Assad won the election, even if it was only partially fair. So why not normalise relations (with the Syrian regime), open its embassies,” Abdel Nour says.
Ahead of the elections, European states and the US condemned the election for being “neither free nor fair.” With the excluded Syrians abroad, people in refugee camps in northeastern Syria as well as others who live in the last rebel stronghold didn’t participate in the elections, only around 25 per cent of the population was able to vote in the elections.
Can the elections change anything in the eyes of the international community? Not many think it can.
Mazen Hassoun, a Syrian refugee, and a journalist, told TRT World that “millions of Syrians inside Syria and the refugees in other countries don’t recognize these elections and are fully aware that they are staged by Assad.”
He’s now based in Germany, where the government didn’t allow the election process in the Syrian embassy in Berlin, calling it out for being a sham. Reminding the regime leader’s father came to power with a coup, he says, “The Syrian regime has a long history of faking and staging the presidential elections”.
Abdel Nour says the election won’t be able to achieve what he was betting on.
“It doesn't change anything regarding the position of the UN, the international community," Abdel Nour says.
"Today the US State Department issued a warning for their allies in the Arab region, saying that the US sanctions on Syria also apply on the allies. That's a hidden message, not to normalize relations and reopen embassies in Damascus”.