Few Syria observers ventured a guess at the New Year as to what the coming 365 days may hold for the country. The region’s topsy-turvy politics is the primary reason, but so is a trait unique to Syria: its seeming inability to set targets and meet them. The final date of the June 2005 Baath Party conference (where a “great leap forward” was promised to take place) was officially set only a week before the meeting began. To date just one of the conference’s edicts—proclaiming Syria a “social-market” economy—has made it onto paper.
It’s election year in Syria, however, and some events penciled into the country’s agenda for 2007 are noteworthy. Sometime before July 10, President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win a (still officially unscheduled) referendum on a second seven-year term in office. In parliamentary elections slated for the second half of April, the ruling Baath Party, which leads the National Progressive Front (a coalition of nine parties), is all but certain to capture its constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority in the Peoples’ Assembly.
Due to be released ahead of each of Syria’s polls are results of a different type: the last two reports by Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz into the murder of the late Lebanese Prime Minster Rafik Hariri. While the investigation’s recent releases note Syria’s compliance with the probe, they also cite “converging evidence” pointing toward Damascus. Whatever Brammertz has up his sleeve remains to be seen, but the announcements provide the opportunity to meddle in Syria’s internal affairs. The big question remains, however, is how the regime and its opponents will play it.
During Syria’s last parliamentary elections in 2003, big Syrian businessmen running for office spent millions of Syrian pounds (now capped at 3 million) on massive outdoor advertising campaigns. The electioneering raised eyebrows at the time not because of its scale (in one Damascus neighborhood, candidates’ advertising outnumbered photos of the president by as much as 30 to 1), but because hopeful candidates bothered to campaign at all. The days under Hafez al-Assad where candidates were pre-selected have given way to a sort of popularity contest where businessmen from powerful families can enter the political realm.
Once in office, representatives are expected to work with the government of Prime Minister Naji al-Otari to draft legislation to overhaul the country’s ailing economy. After passing laws in 2006 to approve the Five-Year Plan and the country’s first stock market, private insurance companies, Islamic banks and private foreign exchange houses, parliament is expected to issue laws this year on mortgage finance, leasing, public sector reform and the issuance of treasury bills.
All of this seems like inside political baseball, and not the kind of thing that might be affected by international pressures bearing down on Syria. But a December report in Time magazine, citing leaked Bush administration documents, claims that Washington has something in store for the assembly poll. It will launch an “election monitoring” program in Syria ahead of the elections together with elements of the exiled opposition National Salvation Front, involving “Internet accessible materials” that can be printed and distributed, as well as a “voter education” campaign. The article even claimed Washington plans to fund at least one candidate for parliament. Those accused of involvement in the scheme have denied the report’s authenticity. Such pressures, however, combined with a dramatic announcement by Brammertz in his next report on March 15, is likely to set off regime paranoia (already running high) ahead of the poll.
The presidential referendum that constitutionally must take place sometime before Bashar al-Assad’s first term ends next July seems much more susceptible to international pressure. Once the new parliament approves Assad as a candidate, Syrians are offered the choice of yea or nay. 97.29% voted the former seven years ago. A mere three weeks before Assad’s term ends, Brammertz is scheduled to release his final conclusions on June 15 before handing the Hariri case over to an international tribunal. If the Belgian fingers senior members of the regime as suspects, and calls them to trial, it is hard to predict what would happen. Syrian referendums are not free and fair, but they are rare moments of mass gathering in Syria—and therefore laden with nationalist sentiment.
Will Assad use the referendum to rally the Syrian people against the Israeli-American “conspiracy” behind the investigation? Or will former Vice President and now National Salvation Front leader Abdel Halim Khaddam use the probe’s results to rally citizens around the flag? If a report in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat last month that the Syrian leadership has decided to reschedule the referendum for late May is any indication, Assad isn’t taking any chances. Another report in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz leaking a “track two” peace plan with Israel initiated by Assad himself shows the inscrutable president may go for broke. Hold onto your seats folks!