Syria held local elections for the first time since 2011 on Sunday, in an attempt by the Syrian state to show strength and present a veneer of normalcy as President Bashar Al-Assad’s government re-extends control over large swaths of the country.
Since 2011, the Syrian government’s once effective monopoly on the use of force has consistently diminished and, in the past years, has been completely dismantled. This is due to different factors. The fragmentation of the country means that large areas are outside government control.
While the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is still present to a certain extent in the Kurdish territories, it is mainly the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekitya Demokrat, PYD) that controls the north-eastern region of Hassake and Kamishly, as well as the north-western area of Afrin. In IS-controlled territories in eastern Syria, there is no presence of governmental forces, and IS has the monopoly on the use of force. The northern province of Idlib and the southern area of Daraa and Sweida are controlled by opposition forces.
Syrians in government-controlled areas cast ballots for more than 40,000 candidates competing for 18,478 seats on local administrative councils.
State controlled news said there was “good turnout” at the 6,551 electoral stations, without specifying. Images from state media showed voters putting ballots into plastic boxes with ubiquitous pictures of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on the wall looking on.
According to observers, the results are almost sure to be rigged in favour of the ruling Ba’ath Party, which has dominated politics and security in the authoritarian state since the 1960s. Most of the candidates were either from the Ba’ath Party or tied to it.
Pro-government forces have most recently retaken control of the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and the southwest corner bordering Jordan and Israel.
Nearly 12 million people out of a pre-war population of 22 million who have been either internally displaced or made refugees outside the country were unable to vote.
Syria regularly holds parliamentary elections but due to the uprising, the 2011 elections were postponed to 2012. The elections are always closely monitored and did not fulfil any criteria of free and fair elections. The majority of the seats were reserved for Ba’th party candidates, with a smaller number of formally independent candidates running.
Constitutional reforms in 2012 slightly changed the system and references to the Ba’th party as the leading party in the country were eliminated. State authorities allowed for the participation of an opposition which was only formally independent and very close to the regime.
During the war, previous persecution of dissidents by the secret services has been complemented with a relentless military campaign. Most of the political opposition members are now outside the country, in prison or have been killed, rendering any future elections even more flawed.
Every seven years, the president is elected in a referendum. In 2014, for the first time, more than one candidate ran for president. Before the single candidate would win more than 97% of the vote. In 2014, Bashar Al-Assad achieved only 88.7%.
Over the past years, the situation in Syria has constantly deteriorated in political and socioeconomic terms. The fragmentation of the country and its near inaccessibility to foreign organizations and journalists make it difficult to gather solid information. Even for Syrians, it has become increasingly difficult to understand the living conditions all over the country.
The Syrian regime has been crushing hopes for democratisation in its territories; the rule of the Islamic State (IS) precludes any democratic options in territory under its control; and in Kurdish and rebel-held areas, military actors dominate political ones. Authoritarian tendencies have become more pronounced all over Syria. Thus, democratic actors have largely been exiled, killed or compelled to address social or humanitarian tasks.
In the beginning of 2014, the United Nations stopped counting the casualties of the war in Syria, however, an estimated half a million people have died so far. Over half of the population has been displaced, with over 6 million people internally displaced (IDPs) and more than 4.6 million registered as refugees, mostly the neighbouring countries.
In 2015, the UNDP estimated that 80% of the population lived in poverty and that life expectancy had been reduced by 20 years since 2011. Of the projected $4.38bn needed for humanitarian assistance in 2016, only $2.13bn could be funded.
The Syrian government’s military victories in Aleppo and the surroundings areas of Damascus in the end of 2016 could only be achieved through a combination of Russian airstrikes, the participation of Iranian military advisers, and a massive deployment of foreign militias, mainly the Lebanese Hezbollah and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan.