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25 May 2021updated 21 Jul 2021 1:47pm

Syria’s presidential election is a sham exercise in a ruined country

After a decade of civil war, Syria has been plunged into economic crisis. But the Assad regime’s failings are unlikely to be punished at the ballot box.

By Ido Vock

No prizes for guessing who is going to win the Syrian presidential elections. The sham vote, which will be held on Wednesday 26 May, will return Bashar al-Assad, the dictator who has been in power since 2000, for another seven-year term.

Democratic politics is meaningless in the roughly two-thirds of Syria governed by Assad’s regime. Since 2014, elections have nominally been multiparty affairs, as opposed to the earlier single-candidate “presidential referendums” held after Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad seized power in a 1970 military coup. But the results are no more uncertain now than they were back then. 

“Opposition” candidates are hand-picked by the regime and might even vote for Assad themselves, said Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East & North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The less said about these ‘elections’, the better,” he added. 

Anyone who openly opposes Assad’s rule has been killed, detained or has fled into exile. Syria, always an oppressive regime under Assad’s Ba’ath party, turned to totalitarianism as it was engulfed by its decade-long civil war, which began in 2011. Even the mildest dissent is harshly repressed: Reuters has reported on the recent release of hundreds of people detained for offenses including liking a Facebook comment that criticised the president. The amnesty is likely intended to show that the regime tolerates some opposition in advance of the elections.

The vote will not be a meaningful political exercise, but it may help to signal to Syrians inside and outside the country how Assad intends to continue his rule, following a military campaign – supported by Russia and Iran – which resulted in him regaining control of most of Syria from rebel groups. The results will likely send an unmistakable message to both Assad’s supporters and opponents: he is going nowhere. 

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Many of the nearly eight million Syrians living in the parts of the country not under regime control, including a largely independent Kurdish region and a Turkish occupation, will not vote. Nor will millions of Syrians who have fled abroad.

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[See also: Assad on trial]

The election could further undermine longstanding but fruitless UN efforts to negotiate a peaceful political settlement, which would have formed a transitional authority ahead of genuinely free elections. 

It comes as Syria has been plunged into a catastrophic economic crisis. The World Bank estimates Syria’s economy is 60 per cent smaller than it was in 2010. The main cause is the civil war, but Western sanctions and a banking crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, Syria’s link to the global financial system, have also contributed to the huge downturn. The Syrian pound is down to around 4,000 to the US dollar, an 80-fold fall from the start of the conflict. 

The civil war destroyed swathes of the country’s infrastructure, including half of hospitals, according to some estimates. Around 50 per cent of Syrians are displaced, half of them abroad. It will take years to fully rebuild the country, even as Syria is reduced to a patchwork of statelets under varying authorities. Indeed, Assad’s campaign slogan, “hope through work”, alludes to the difficulty of reconstruction. 

The economic crisis is causing misery for millions of Syrians who are now unable to afford essentials such as bread and fuel. Nearly six in ten Syrians are at risk of hunger, according to the UN’s World Food Programme, while 90 per cent of Syrians in regime-held areas are believed to be living in poverty. 

And yet the government’s failings are unlikely to be punished at the ballot box this week.

[See also: After a decade of civil war, Syria lies in ruins]