Syria’s parliamentary elections are being met with cynicism on the streets of Damascus despite being billed as the first multi-party elections the country has seen in decades.
Damascus – The streets of Damascus are covered with pictures of candidates running in the May 7 parliamentary elections. Alongside the images, there are political slogans that many say are out of date and no longer express a coherent agenda.
The area east of Jisr al-Thawra near Martyr’s Square — or Marjeh, as Syrians prefer to call it — is one of Damascus’ most famous and poorest markets.
Some call it “the thieves’ market,” but the stall owners prefer Souq al-Juma, the Friday Market. Most of the items on sale are either used or little more than junk.
Absent from the market and the area surrounding it are any parliamentary election campaign posters, which have become a subject of ridicule among the market’s peddlers.
One vendor spreads some used watches out between his feet on a small rug, shouting: “Authentic Japanese watches…made in Germany…and with every watch you get a free candidate for parliament!”
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of candidates in Damascus and the surrounding area have chosen wealthy neighborhoods such as Mazzeh, Malki, and Abou Roummaneh to hang their campaign banners.
Looking at the slogans and rhetoric the candidates chose to promote themselves, one could be forgiven for thinking that a democratic revolution led by these candidates was about to take the country to unprecedented heights.
The Syrian public, however, has adopted different interpretations of the fervor of the parliamentary elections that occur every four years without any significant political change.
This year’s elections come as the country is witnessing a serious political crisis. There have been a series of political reforms and constitutional amendments, the most important of which are the new party and elections laws and the removal of Article 8 of the constitution, opening the way for multi-party elections.
The candidates of the former officially recognized opposition, the National Progressive Front (NPF), appear in this year’s elections on a list called the National Unity coalition. Previously, the NPF included the parties of Syria’s workers and farmers, yet no party with the exception of the Baath was allowed to field candidates in all of Syria’s provinces.
The names on the NPF list were changed following the release of the new constitution, in which the Baath party is no longer the sole leader of the Syrian state and society. This pushed many members and supporters of these parties to await election results to discover their popularity among the people.
Observers suggest the three parties that could fare best are the Baathists, the Communists, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).
The new parties in Syria, many of which are less than a year old, face a challenge in confronting their older rivals. For many of them this is their first experience with popular politics.
One new party activist says that the past year has not been enough to get their principles and goals known, and thus they are not expected to win many seats in parliament.
However, according to the same source, this is an experience that the new parties must make good use of going forward, especially since this is the first time in decades that the Syrian people have had a number of parties to choose from.
The election process will differ markedly depending on the area in question. There are serious doubts, for example, regarding how the elections will be carried out in places like Homs, where ongoing street battles will most likely cut into voter turnout.
The Aleppo governorate has the most seats in the parliament with 32, followed by Damascus with 29. The seats are divided into two groups: one for workers and farmers and the other for the remaining sectors of the Syrian population.
Those who have been involved in party machines in previous elections note that many of the candidates have changed this year. In years past, the pictures of prominent businessmen filled the streets of Damascus, and large numbers of youth gathered at the polls in exchange for money.
This year, those candidates are nowhere to be seen, although they are running. Some say that they have been out of the public eye because of the criticism that they have faced, thus allowing new businessmen and factory owners to enter the political arena.
Many young people point out the violations in campaign advertising, a reality that has aroused disdain for some candidates among wide segments of the population. This led some youth to hold a meeting to demand an end to these violations.
Participants in the meeting emphasized the importance of holding those in violation accountable as stipulated by the new election law, which places a limit of 3 million Syrian pounds (approximately US$50,000) on campaign spending. One of the sites following the electoral process indicates that there are some campaigns which have exceeded this limit.
Young Syrian theater actor Sami Abu Ammar says in a quick reading of recent events in the country that “the regime is reaping what it has sown” by tolerating and fostering opportunism and corruption.
“The regime will not be able to present any new or convincing picture in which it will contribute to the Syria of the future,” he says. “Inevitably, everyone is interested right now in the coming changes, but there are obvious questions surrounding the nature, essence, and equity of these changes.”
In Saba Bahrat Square, the walls and alleyways are plastered with signs and pictures of candidates. The renowned Café Rawda sits near the parliament building.
Young Syrian writer and journalist Ali Wajih meets his friends and colleagues at the cafe almost daily. They poke fun at the most recent European sanctions, which ban the importation of finished goods and luxury items into Syria.
“No more caviar for you, toiling people of Syria,” says Wajih sarcastically. “But wait, the best is yet to come. The sanctions also include Cuban cigars, crystal ware, and perfume. Some breathed a sigh of relief to see that backgammon and tricks (a card game) – the essentials – are not on the list.”
Wherever young Syrian author Ahmad al-Basha roams in the streets of the capital and its suburbs, he jots down some of the slogans he finds on campaign posters and banners in a small notebook, a veritable encyclopedia of absurdity.
One of the strangest slogans he has recorded is, “Things should stay the way they are,” which he found on the campaign poster of a candidate stuck to a pedestrian crossing signal on the highway in Mazzeh.
Amidst the chaos of these signs, which show no apparent concern for aesthetics or design, remains the one raised by young Syrian activist Rima Dali saying, “Stop the killing, we want to build a country for all Syrians.” A genuine, beautiful statement representing more Syrians right now than all of the candidates put together.
The opposition within Syria is approaching the elections in three divergent ways. The first calls for entering the parliamentary elections based on the idea that participating in the elections does not mean becoming regime loyalist.
This view is mainly supported by the People’s Will Party headed by Qadri Jamil and the SSNP led by Ali Haydar under the banner of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, which is running 45 candidates.
The second approach calls for a complete boycott of the elections on the basis that participating would mean compromising with the regime and recognizing its legitimacy.
This camp says that the elections do not represent Syrian society and includes mainly the National Coordinating Committee, the Building the Syrian State movement, and similar opposition parties and figures.
The third camp calls themselves the “Muhammad Brigades,” and they belong to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They have already vowed to carry out assassinations against the candidates, saying “If they do not withdraw, we will make them withdraw by force,” according to an FSA video released online.
[This article was originally published on Al-Akhbar English.]