Ladies and gentlemen, the agonising suspense is over: Bashar-al-Assad has beaten off stiff competition to secure a third seven-year term as Syria’s president.

How do we know the election was free and fair? Because the regime invited observers from “friendly countries” – bastions of democracy including North Korea, China, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, Cuba and others – to provide their independent verification.

It is just as well that so few journalists from the conspiratorial international media were granted visas to cover the event – they would have only gotten in the way. Coverage was far better left in the hands of objective outlets such as Syria’s state media, Russia Today and Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV.

So it is official: Assad has brought democracy to his country. What have so many Syrians been complaining about for the past few years? Perhaps the election was too free and fair. After all, Assad secured only 88.7% of the vote, less than the 97% of his democratic Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El Sisi. The result this time is poor compared with the 97.6% Assad achieved in 2007, which was down from his perfectly plausible 99.7% in 2000.

However, those who worry that his domestic support is slipping need not do so. At this rate, his approval ratings will remain above 50% until the 2070 elections, when he will be 104. If he does not live that long, either his son Hafez will rightfully take his place, or the constitution could be changed to allow voting for the deceased.

Anything to ensure that the great work of the man who democratised Syria is not cut short. Indeed, it would not be the first amendment to enable Assad to become president: the minimum age of 40 was lowered in 2000 to 34 – coincidentally, his age at the time.

One can argue that parody is the appropriate means to assess an election that is itself a parody of democracy. One can also argue that it is no laughing matter. Both views are correct. Jokes aside, it is amazing how much effort and attention there was over a non-event, an ‘election’ in name only whose result was always a foregone conclusion.

Its critics contend that its real purpose was a publicity stunt. What for? If it was supposed to change people’s minds, it failed miserably. If it was about gaining legitimacy, there was no point. Those who loathed Assad before the election still do so – likewise those among his admirers.

His loyalists inside and outside Syria would not have abandoned him had there not been a vote, and the fact that it took place has not led to a conversion among his foes. The election has changed nothing, and so means nothing.

No contest

Among the most farcical claims about the vote was that it was free, fair and genuinely contested. Constitutional amendments did mean that this was the first time in 40 years that more than one candidate was allowed (previously there were yes / no referendums).

However, the restrictions on eligibility ensured that Assad would face no real opponents. Candidates need the support of 35 members of parliament, which is so dominated by the ruling Baath party that no one would be able to run without its blessing.

Candidates must also have lived continuously in Syria for 10 years prior to nomination, automatically ruling out those in exile for daring to voice dissent. To cement their exclusion, candidates cannot have any other citizenship or “a non-Syrian wife.” Furthermore, anyone “convicted of a dishonorable felony” is not eligible “even if he was reinstated” – in other words, no one who has ever been a political prisoner (not exactly a rarity in Syria).

No wonder, then, that the Supreme Constitutional Court accepted only three of the 24 applications to run for the presidency. It is puzzling why a Christian candidate bothered to apply, since Article 3 of the constitution states that the president must be Muslim (around 10% of the population is Christian).

Assad thus faced just two others in the election – Maher Hajjar and Hassan Al Nouri – but to call them challengers would be woefully misleading. Besides being unknown before their nominations, and having far less exposure than the incumbent in the run-up to the vote, they heaped praise on him throughout. They expressed total agreement with his handling of the war, in which his regime has committed countless atrocities.

The Associated Press, which interviewed Hajjar by telephone, reported that he “offered little to differentiate himself from Assad.” Nouri may as well have been the president’s campaign spokesman, saying Syrians “need Assad to continue leading” the country.

Nouri described the incumbent as a “great” and “very strong leader,” who is “believed in by many Syrians.” He added: “You have to respect what he’s doing.” Nouri’s icing on the cake: “I’m not opposition.” Not that anyone thought he was, but at least he spared us the pretence.

Voter restrictions

As if restrictions on candidates was not enough, the Syrian electorate faced severe limitations that rendered the official turnout of almost 74% absurd. New ID documents that can only be issued by the regime were necessary to cast a ballot, and more than a million Syrians have reportedly lost their papers during the conflict.

Voting only took place in regime-controlled areas, resulting in the exclusion of large swathes of the country. Even in government territory, Syrians reported pressure to take part and re-elect Assad. Many said they succumbed out of fear of reprisals, particularly if they were seen without the electoral ink stain on their fingers.

Rumours abounded that government employees would lose their jobs, or students would be expelled or fail their exams, if they or their families did not vote. Such rumours would have been taken very seriously given the regime’s amply-demonstrated brutality and repression.

Refugees – of whom there were 2.6 million as of April – could only take part if they left the country via official border crossings (most in neighbouring Turkey and Iraq did not). Furthermore, they had to cast their ballots at a Syrian embassy.

The Interior Ministry said only 200,000 Syrians outside the country would be eligible to vote – less than 8% of the total refugee population. They too said they had received various threats, such as not being allowed to re-enter Syria, or having their homes confiscated.

In Lebanon, which hosts the largest number of refugees, there were reports of men – identifying themselves as members of a Lebanese political party allied to Assad (hint hint) – asking Syrian refugees who would be voting, and taking down names. “Their presence was a reminder to the more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon that they are still within the reach of [the] Damascus government,” Reuters reported.

Public opinion

A far more revealing and credible poll than that staged by Damascus was conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Published in June, it surveyed internally displaced Syrians, as well as refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey (which by April were hosting some 87% of the total refugee population), about their attitudes towards the ballot and the war in general.

The findings clearly highlight how farcical the election results are, and shatter the prevailing narrative of Assad gaining support or grudging acceptance from Syrians who were either on the fence or pro-opposition.

The vast majority of internally displaced Syrians and refugees (78%) view the election as illegitimate, and think their country would be better off if Assad stepped down. Only 17% say the election is legitimate and oppose his abdication. Almost two-thirds (64%) say the ideal solution to the crisis is regime change, whereas only 6% say it is Assad’s victory over the opposition.

Support for the regime has actually fallen, from 19% during the first six months of the revolution, to a mere 13% after three years. Support for the opposition increased over the same period, from 52% to 60%. The survey’s results have a particular significance given that internally displaced Syrians and refugees represent almost half the entire Syrian population.

The opinions and size of the displaced, the absence of independent monitoring, the threats and rumours, and the lack of any incentive for Assad’s opponents to vote willingly, all provide damning evidence of the charade that was the presidential election. What it all means is that Assad’s victory of 88.7% (unheard of in genuine democracies) reflects not the endorsement of the Syrian people, but of his supporters and those pressured to cast their ballots.

Bleak prospects

Hezbollah, whose fighters have been crucial to Assad’s military resurgence, said the election “lays the foundation for the post-war phase.” On the contrary, it ensures the prolongation of the conflict. The regime will either continue to pay lip service to negotiations, or abandon the process altogether. Either way, it will maintain its military campaign with renewed determination, against Syrian opposition forces that have rejected the election and its results.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and former UN / Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, warned that holding the ballot would “damage the political process and hamper the prospects for a political solution,” said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

“Such elections are incompatible with the letter and spirit of the Geneva communique,” he added, referring to its central stipulation that a transitional government be set up. This was agreed upon by all parties at the Geneva conferences – including the regime – as a precondition for their participation.

As such, Assad has made a mockery of the communique, of a negotiated political agreement, and of democracy itself. It is the height of arrogance and delusion to think that his coronation will bring an end to the death, displacement and destruction that has blighted Syria and its people for too long.

Sharif Nashashibi

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