The Party is Over. Long Live the Party

The End of Democracy

Photo thanks to John Wreford, whose gallery can be found at www.johnwreford.com

All the post election roundups are having a good time laughing at the Syrian elections for being a farce.

Emblematic of the coverage are these smarty-pants comments by Marty Peretz, the editor-in-chief of the New Republic. He writes:

It is mandated by law that this alliance of Ba'ath and castrated allies win these seats again, according to David Schenker, who was an adviser on Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestinian matters to the Defense Department from 2002 until 2006. These credentials may not reassure you. So find us some other honest and smart person–which Schenker certainly is–who'll tell us something different. This immediately precludes Patrick Seale and Robert Fisk, both Brits, who believe that Bashir Assad, like his dad, is a true democrat.

Even the French are now disgusted with the Assad regime and, more important, actively hostile to it. For one reason at least: it is destroying Lebanon, which Paris wants as its last–tiens, tiens–remaining satrapy of empire.

Not only does he make the old "Bashir" mistake, but he argues that Seale and Fisk "believe Assad is a true Democrat." Yawn. Anyone who has read a word of Seale or Fisk know that they believe nothing of the sort. How did this guy win so many awards for journalism? I guess if you have money and own your own magazine, you can say what you want.

But no one addresses the larger dilemma – certainly not Peretz: how do you get to democracy in the Middle East without destroying what is there? Peretz and Schenker both made the really grievous mistake of arguing that America had the answers to Iraq's political system. It is easy to make fun of Middle Eastern regimes for running predetermined elections, but it is bizarre to see Americans still smugly righteous about how to rule Middle Eastern states. If America could do Iraq over again, it is hard to imagine that it wouldn't take a few pages out of the Syrian or Egyptian play book. Seale and Fisk had the insight to know that imposing an American order on Iraq would lead to disaster. Enough of my rant. Here is the round-up:

The best observations on the elections are by Andrew Lee Butters of the Time Middle East Blog: Democracy Syrian-Style. (Thanks to POMED for bringing Butters to my attention.)

AP writes this about the close of elections: 

State newspapers claimed there was “massive participation” and “fierce competition” in Sunday's polling, the first of the two-day election, but they provided no figures for voter turnout.

The government reserves the majority of seats in the 250-seat parliament for candidates from the ruling coalition. But Syria hopes the election will soften its authoritarian image and perhaps ease its international isolation.

The United States has dismissed the elections as useless.

The opposition called for a boycott, saying the results were known in advance, and that Syria needed an election law that provided for free and fair polling. Some government critics said the boycott campaign was responsible for the vote being even lower than usual.

Results from the voting are not expected before Wednesday.

Still, in the Arab world, where some countries do not have elections and others vote for bodies with very limited power, Syria's parliamentary elections and the tolerance of government critics mark a significant stride from the country's totalitarian past.

“We should all support this great leadership. No other Arab country has confronted American and Israeli policies the way Syria has,” said Salem Mohammed, 50, a merchant.

But Mohammed Arnous, 39, said he was angered by the “haphazard” way people were voting.

“We should really think about who we are voting for,” he said before entering a balloting station in downtown Damascus.

Some 2,500 candidates are running for the National Assembly in this country of 18.6 million people. Authorities have said that around 7 million citizens are eligible to vote.

Last week, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, J. Scott Carpenter, described the vote as meaningless and “a missed opportunity” for change.

A senior member of the ruling coalition, Safwan Qudsi, replied that Carpenter's comments amounted to interference in Syrian affairs.

Hassan Abdel-Azim, a lawyer who heads a group of small parties opposed to the government, said the boycott call was a factor in the apparently low turnout on Sunday.

“Of course, the foremost reason for the low turnout is the feeling that the result of the election is a foregone conclusion,” he said.

The government denies this, claiming the boycott had no effect.

“The fate of all those who collaborate against their country is well known,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, a Cabinet minister.

AFP Writes:

The vote took place "in total freedom and transparency," SANA said on Monday, without giving turnout figures for the first day's vote on Sunday.

"Turnout is low but higher than yesterday," an official at a downtown Damascus polling station told AFP shortly before polls closed, walls behind him featuring posters of President Bashar al-Assad with his father and predecessor Hafez.

"Citizens, elections are a national democratic celebration. Vote for whoever you think is the most competent," read a nearby interior ministry sign.

While turnout on Monday appeared low at several other polling stations visited by AFP in the capital, an AFP photographer in Damascus' poorer southern districts reported "relatively high turnout" with people queueing to vote.

Residents appeared split on whether the election, totally lacking in suspense for most people, would bring any change.

Even the official Tishrin daily said last week that Syrians "have lost their enthusiasm for the parliamentary elections."

In Syria's second city of Aleppo, in the north, "candidates were disappointed by the low turnout," the independent Al-Watan daily reported on Monday.

BBC:

But there is one thing that is different in these elections – never before have Syrians so openly voiced their lack of interest in the polls, and that is a sign that perhaps something is changing in Syria, our correspondent says.

Comments (10)


 

2. EHSANI2 said:

Dr. Landis,

I stick to my hypothesis that Arab republics are republics in name only. The rest of the world keeps forcing them to act like something they are not. For Arab leaders, acting like true republics is fraught with risks that they are simply unwilling to tolerate. In the end, maintaining power and becoming true democratic republics are two mutually exclusive set of outcomes. Faced to make the choice, none will choose the latter over the former. The region’s populace as well as the western observers better get used to this fact of life.

Many want to maintain law and order. They want no foreign intervention. They are unwilling, or more likely unable, to put any domestic pressure on their leaders. Yet, they want their regimes to unilaterally reform and become more democratic.

I’d say, good luck

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April 23rd, 2007, 8:53 pm

 

3. Atassi said:

totally agree with BCC view. It’s a change for sure to see the Syrians so openly voiced their lack of interest in the polls, But, Will the Syrians act\allowed the same way during the presidential referendums? The live and real test “hot balloons” was conducted without causing any damages, I am sure the regime has learned a great deal form it.

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April 23rd, 2007, 9:07 pm

 

4. Atassi said:

Syria’s Assad consolidates power through legislative elections despite criticism
By ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press Writer

23 April 2007

Associated Press Newswires
English
(c) 2007. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) – Syrians voted Monday in a tightly controlled election to pick a new legislature, a vote President Bashar Assad hopes can consolidate his rule, soften his regime’s authoritarian image and ease its international isolation.

The result of the election, which under the constitution guarantees the ruling Baath Party and its allies a two-thirds majority, was not expected before Wednesday. But there was no doubt about the outcome.

A priority facing the rubber-stamp parliament is approving the Baath’s nomination of Assad for a second seven-year term in office. The president is expected to easily win a July referendum.

A dose of democracy, however limited, could serve to boost Assad’s standing at home as he tries to soften Syria’s hard-line image and ease its international isolation after being shunned by U.S. and European officials over policies in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

Regime opponents and the United States have dismissed the balloting Sunday and Monday, calling the election a meaningless exercise.

Still, the campaigning brought some relaxation of past rigid controls. Some state-run newspapers criticized individual candidates, though such vocal comments were limited to those running rather than the regime itself.

Some people who cast ballots also said they didn’t believe their vote counted.

“I don’t really think anything is going to change, but I wanted to vote anyway,” said shoe shop owner Inas Kokash, 28, after casting his ballot Monday. “It’s better to do something than to do nothing at all.”

State-run newspapers reported “massive participation” and “fierce competition” in Sunday’s polling, the first of the two-day election to pick 250 National Assembly members from 2,500 candidates. Opponents, who urged a boycott, said there was no competition and credited what they said was a lower than usual turnout to their efforts. Opposition parties are banned in Syria.

Washington, which is at odds with Syria over Lebanon, Iraq and other Mideast issues, also criticized the elections. Last week, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs J. Scott Carpenter described the vote as meaningless and “a missed opportunity” for change.

Authorities described U.S. criticism as interference and their Syrian opponents as collaborators.

“Nations across the world, namely peoples of the Middle East, are fed up with U.S.-style ‘democracy and freedom’ and need no lessons or advice from others,” said an editorial Monday in the English-language Syria Times.

Authorities have said there were around 7 million eligible voters of a population of 18.6 million. The government did not release voter turnout numbers after polls closed early Monday afternoon. Low voter turnout is customary in Syria, where the legislature has no major say in policy-making.

Opponents insisted its boycott call affected the election.

“Such a boycott is a message to the world as an expression of the frustration and pressures” by the regime on the people, said dissident Maamoun Homsi, a former lawmaker who spent time in jail before seeking refuge abroad.

The election is the second since Assad took power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad. Many initially had high hopes then when pro-democracy activists were given brief measures of freedom. But those hopes have been replaced by disillusionment as his regime jailed opponents and failed to enact promised political reforms.

At a Baath Party congress in 2005, delegates endorsed the idea of independent political parties and relaxing emergency laws, in place since 1963. But those promises have yet to be realized.

Despite the shortcomings, Syria’s elections mark a significant stride from the tighter regime controls in the past.

In the Arab world, some countries, including U.S. allies, do not have elections and others vote for bodies with very limited power. In Syria, unlike some Arab countries, women get to vote and can be elected to office. A total of 158 women are running in the election and are expected to slightly increase their presence in the legislature, where 30 women currently hold posts.

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April 23rd, 2007, 9:13 pm

 

5. George Ajjan said:

This coverage has been atrocious across the board. How can journalists write about elections in the Middle East without identifying the religious and ethnic identification not only of the candidates on the ballot, but also each voter they interview? What are we supposed to believe, that Arabs have independent opinions or that they vote or run for office because of a sense of secular nationalism???

It’s really shameful that the Syrian Baath Party doesn’t provide people like Peretz with percentages of Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Kurds, etc. in the candidate pool. What the hell does Imad Moustapha get paid to do all day???

We should all be outraged that these pundits have to do research instead of cutting-and-pasting government propaganda.

Atassi, can you please repost that definition of sarcasm? Thanks.

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April 23rd, 2007, 10:09 pm

 

6. Alex said:

George, you mean “Ehsani, can you please repost that definition of sarcasm?

Ehsani has the mighty dictionary.

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April 23rd, 2007, 10:12 pm

 

7. majedkhaldoun said:

at least we will have no surprises

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April 23rd, 2007, 10:37 pm

 

8. Akbar Palace said:

EHSANI2 said:

In the end, maintaining power and becoming true democratic republics are two mutually exclusive set of outcomes. Faced to make the choice, none will choose the latter over the former. The region’s populace as well as the western observers better get used to this fact of life.

Many want to maintain law and order. They want no foreign intervention. They are unwilling, or more likely unable, to put any domestic pressure on their leaders. Yet, they want their regimes to unilaterally reform and become more democratic.

I have to agree with this assessment. But do you really think a thug will “unilaterally reform”? Saddam never did. The Assads never did. The PA never did. The theocrats in Iran never did. The Gulf states never did. Did Saudi Arabia “unilaterally reform”? What about Eygpt?

Therefore, if you are 1 Billion people, and you can find a group large enough to make any noise, 1 little demonstration (OK, Lebanon was an aberration) then please:

1.) Don’t cry to me about freedom.

2.) Don’t cry to me about jobs, money and a good economy.

3.) Don’t cry to me about political prisoners.

4.) Don’t cry to me about modernization.

5.) Don’t cry to me about law and order.

6.) Don’t cry to me about intolerance and racism.

7.) Don’t cry to me about wars and violence.

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April 24th, 2007, 1:28 am

 

9. Enlightened said:

Akbar:

with one reservation lets all shed a tear for lost opportunity,.Perhaps next election title Professor Josh’s header might read:

“The Syrian Baath party: Obituary”

This election has been one tremendous farce, pure and simple

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April 24th, 2007, 1:50 am

 

10. Akbar Palace said:

Perhaps next election title Professor Josh’s header might read:

“The Syrian Baath party: Obituary”

This election has been one tremendous farce, pure and simple

Enlightened –

What is the word? “Inshallah!” No?

I wish you guys could discuss why such a LARGE community can’t seem to muster even the slightest noise to effect change.

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April 24th, 2007, 11:14 am

 

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