Syrian presidential vote: What changes will it bring?

In the twisted calculus of today's presidential election, President Bashar al-Assad will claim legitimacy by getting a smaller percentage of the vote than in years past.

Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters
Women walk past election posters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad along a street in Damascus on June 2, 2014. Buoyed by a sequence of military victories over the past year, Assad will be elected to a third seven-year term as president this week.

What does Assad gain from holding this vote?

Today's election is intended to give a fresh boost of legitimacy to President Bashar al-Assad. It signals to Syrians and the rest of the world that he is not a dictator fighting for his life and that of his regime against a popular opposition, but the elected leader of a country battling foreign-backed “terrorists.”

The smart money says that Assad will win by a landslide, but with a lower percentage than his previous wins (97.62 percent in 2007; 97 percent in 2000) in order to add a veneer of credibility. Most of the international community considers the election a farce and will not recognize it.

The vote is another nail in the coffin of a negotiated end to Syria's civil war. Two rounds of talks earlier this year completely failed. Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations envoy for Syria, resigned in exasperation last month, and there is no serious effort to revive negotiations at this stage. Assad feels he is winning the war against the armed opposition. Bolstered by another seven-year term, he will see no need to engage in talks with the opposition.

Who are the other candidates?

In 2012, Syrian law changed so that presidential elections would no longer be a referendum on a single candidate. 

Assad’s two opponents are Hassan Nouri, a wealthy businessman from Damascus and former cabinet minister, and Maher Hajjar, a lawmaker and ex-Communist Party activist from Aleppo in northern Syria. There were another 21 candidates, but they were disqualified from running. Neither opponent stands a chance of beating Assad but the fact that they are standing is supposed to convey a sense of integrity and competition to the electoral race.

The campaign carries none of the mud-slinging one might find in US elections, making for a polite but banal campaign. Mr. Nouri was quoted by Iran’s Press TV on Saturday as saying that cooperation between Syria, Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah party “will foil the colonialistic plans of countries outside the [Middle East] region” – a comment that could have come from Assad himself. Nouri and Mr. Hajjar's electoral platforms mostly address economic and social development and endemic corruption. Little has been said about how they would end the war and engage with the opposition.

How much of the country will be able to vote?

There will only be voting in those areas under government control: most of Damascus; Homs, Syria’s third largest city; and the coastal towns and villages. It is unclear whether the divided city of Aleppo in the north will be able to vote. Rebel-held areas are boycotting the elections. Expatriate Syrians already have voted – in huge numbers in Lebanon, which hosts more than a million refugees. 

Can we expect any violence on election day? 

Given that an average of 200 people die every day in Syria because of the war, violence is inevitable, but not necessarily directed specifically at the election. There has been talk among rebel groups of attempting to deter people from voting by shelling polling stations before they open, but since polls are only being held in regime-controlled areas, such a tactic is unlikely to be widespread. Suicide car bomb attacks are possible, but security will be tight. 

What does this mean going forward? 

It means that the conflict is likely to endure for many more years. Assad will feel vindicated by his reelection and will likely reject any proposed meaningful negotiations with the opposition. 

On the battlefield, Assad's forces will continue to systematically seize territory from the fragmented, poorly equipped armed opposition. The regime has regained control over the critical corridor linking Damascus to the Mediterranean coast via Homs and has either pushed rebel forces away from the suburbs of Damascus or surrounded and bombed them in a brutal but effective strategy of “surrender or starve.” The military is attempting to reverse recent rebel gains in the Golan Heights and Deraa province in the south and continues to chip away at rebel quarters of Aleppo.

Nevertheless, Assad’s military forces – the army, Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi Shiite paramilitaries and the National Defense Force militia – are badly overextended. When they concentrate their forces on a specific target, such as the recent offensive in the Qalamoun region north of Damascus, they can usually triumph, but it is by no means certain that the regime can hold the ground after it redeploys to a new objective. 

As for regaining the country as a whole, that is not a realistic scenario for now. Neither side is strong enough to decisively defeat the other. 

Does this affect the opposition Syrian National Council at all?

Not really. The SNC has dismissed the election as a “black comedy” and refuses to recognize the results. Still, the SNC has its own problems given its lack of credibility among the armed opposition groups, internal bickering, and general ineffectiveness.

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