On the 26th of May presidential elections were held in Syria. The three candidates were president Bashar al-Assad, Abdullah Sallum Abdullah, former state minister of parliamentary affairs, and Mahmoud Ahmad Marei, the president of the National Democratic Front. Other 48 people were aspiring to be candidates, but their applications were refused. President Bashar al-Assad won for the 4th time, as expected, by gaining over 95% of the votes. The other candidates got 3.3%, respectively 1.5%. Al-Assad has been the president of Syria since 2000 when he succeeded his father. This is an increase since the 2014 elections when the president received 88.7% of the votes. The turnout was high, with almost 80% of the 18 million people that had the right to cast their votes, both internally and externally. The final results were announced by Hammoud Sabbagh, the speaker of the Syrian parliament.
It is important to be noted that the presidential elections were held only in the parts of the country that are controlled by the state government, meaning two-thirds of the total territory. The parts controlled by rebels, jihadists, and the Kurdish territories are not included in the elections, for instance, the US-controlled region in the north.
In the same respect, in a statement issued on the 24th of May, the Kurdish-led autonomous administration in the north and east Syria said it has closed the land and marine borders with the Syrian government-controlled territories to prevent inhabitants from voting in the presidential elections. According to the autonomous administration, only ambulances were permitted to pass through the crossings. This was decided shortly after the Syrian Democratic Council announced that they will not interfere in any way in the elections: “The Syrian Democratic Council has repeatedly announced that it would not be involved in any elections that do not fulfill the Syrians’ goals related to their lives, rights, and political presence and that it would not facilitate any electoral process that violates the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.”
Despite the conflict that has been going on for more than 10 years, poverty, and a collapsing economy, many believed and hoped that Al-Assad would win another seven-year term. His political campaign for those elections was entitled “Hope Through Work”. It concentrated on creating jobs and giving a fresh start to the economy.
After the official results were announced, people gathered in the streets to celebrate the victory of President Bashar al-Assad. Chanting, dancing, lighting fireworks, and waving Syrian flags around, many of them seemed happy for the outcome and excited for another mandate of the president. People began chanting supporting words, for example: “With our soul, blood, we defend you Bashar,” and “We only choose three: God, Syria, and Bashar.” The results extend the six-decade rule of the al-Assad family, which had been in power since 1971.
During and after the election day, claims of corruption and manipulation have arisen. Some say that al-Assad banners were placed in the country’s 12 000 polling locations. The elections were depicted by the state and the pro-government media to show solidarity across sectarian, ethnic, and ideological divides. Other sustain that thousands of people began gathering at polling centers in Damascus at 7 a.m., where the streets were festooned with large posters of Assad and banners celebrating his rule. One of the banners read: “We choose the future. We choose Bashar Assad”. In the streets, there were a few posters for the two other candidates. Moreover, a student from Damascus, said polling stations had been filled with voters all morning and that many students had been forced to vote: “Some universities will fail or even expel you if you don’t vote […] But it doesn’t matter; we all know what the results will be because these elections are just a show.”
Also, some western powers, for instance, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy released a unified statement calling the elections a fraud: For an election to be credible, all Syrians should be allowed to participate, including internally displaced Syrians, refugees, and members of the diaspora, in a safe and neutral environment.” Last month, US and French officials warned that without a political settlement to the long-running conflict, the elections would be neither free nor fair. Furthermore, the Biden administration stated that it would not accept the outcome of the Syrian election unless it is free, fair, and supervised by the United Nations, as well as by representatives of the Syrian society. Turkey also declared the elections to be illegitimate.
Bashar al-Assad personally rejected those claims and issued a press declaration after casting his ballot in Douma, a former rebel city, saying: “As a state, we do not care at all about such statements. But more important than what the government says or does not say is what the people say. I think that’s what we have seen during the past few weeks. It’s a clear answer to all of those people and it tells them that the value of your opinions is zero.” By the same token, addressing those claims, the Syrian government’s Higher Judicial Committee for Presidential Elections stated that no election breaches have occurred across the nation.
Additionally, the European Council stated on Thursday, a day after the election, that its sanctions against the Syrian regime will be extended for another year: “Today, the EU’s restrictive measures against the Syrian regime have been extended for an additional year until June 1, 2022, as the country’s civilian population continues to be suppressed by the regime […]. These measures also target prominent businessmen who benefit from their relations with the regime and the war economy.”
The United Nations also issued a statement with regards to the election. The spokesman of the UN Secretary-General, Stephane Dujarric, said: “We are not involved in these elections … in any way, and we, of course, have no mandate to be. […] We are, of course, aware that the elections are taking place. It’s important to remind you in answering the question that … these are being called under the auspices of the current constitution and not part of the political process that was established under resolution 2254.” Before the elections took place, the UN insisted on organizing them under international supervision, which would pave the way for redressing the society, the economy, and, of course, the political system in Syria.
Even though Syria did not accept the supervision of the United Nations, delegations from the government’s allies, namely from Iran, Russia, and Belarus were sent to Syria, with the role to monitor the elections.
Both the Russian and the Belarusian presidents congratulated Bashar al-Assad for winning a fourth term. The telegram coming from Russia cites: “The voting results have fully confirmed your high political prestige, the fellow citizens’ trust for the policy pursued under your leadership towards stabilizing the situation in Syria as quickly as possible and strengthening its state institutions.” Likewise, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said: “The victory at the election testifies to the recognition of your undisputable authority as the national leader who confidently protects his country from foreign interference and is doing his best to establish peace and stability in Syria. Belarus has always been and will remain a friend of the Syrian people and will continue supporting your friendly state.”
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TASS, 2021. Putin congratulates Bashar al-Assad on his victory at Syria’s presidential elections. https://tass.com/politics/1295229. Accessed May 28, 2021.
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About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.