Flickr/ Rafael Medina

Syria’s 2021 presidential election: what does it mean for the country?

Syrians voted in their first presidential election since 2014 this year and the results were exactly as anticipated. To most observers, there was no question that incumbent President Bashar al-Assad would win a fourth seven-year term, even as his nation faces civil unrest and economic crisis. And that is indeed what transpired, with the president taking 95.1% of the popular vote after the polls were closed – meaning his 21-year rule will continue. But what will this mean for Syria?

Assad has been president of Syria since 2000 – succeeding his late father Hafez, who had ruled for more than a quarter of a century before that. In 2000, he was a mild-mannered ophthalmologist who claimed he wanted to bring genuine political reform to the country. In reality, his rule has been considerably more brutal.

He was re-elected for a third term seven years ago after winning 88% of the vote. The poll was held despite fighting still ranging across the country, and the opposition refusing to participate. Indeed, one opposition candidate told voters that Assad should remain president.

The Arab Spring had given hope to pro-democracy activists, and the brutal response to peaceful protestors fuelled conflict

In 2014, the situation for Assad was still precarious despite his win – opposition forces controlled many of the country’s cities and the suburbs of Damascus, and there was a feeling that the president could still have been ousted in a military coup. Syria had been engaged in a brutal civil war since 2011 – the Arab Spring had given hope to pro-democracy activists, and the brutal response to peaceful protestors fuelled conflict.

In July 2011, defectors from the military announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel aiming to overthrow the government. Their success meant they could have succeeded in their goal around the last election. Since then, however, the tide of the war has shifted decisively in Assad’s favour, with Russian airstrikes and Iran-backed militias helping the Syrian army regain control. The legacy of the fighting is still a bloody one: at least 388,000 people are dead, and half the population have fled their homes – including almost six million refugees abroad.

One of the key questions, given the fractured landscape and the fact that Assad was essentially guaranteed to win, is why bother holding an election in the first place? The two opposition candidates, Abdullah Salloum Adbullah and Mahmoud Ahmed Mari, were essentially non-entities – as the Daily Telegraph noted: “few consider [the two candidates] serious contenders.” 51 candidates actually hoped to run in the election, but the supreme constitutional court only approved three.

To a large extent, it’s about optics – according to the Syrian government, the fact that the election is taking place shows that the country is functioning normally, with 18 million people eligible to vote both inside Syria and abroad. After casting his vote in a Damascus suburb, Assad said: “Syria is not what they were trying to market – one city against the other and sect against the other, or civil war. Today, we are proving from Douma that the Syrian people are one.”

I opened Facebook to see Bashar al-Assad electing himself. What a farce

– Salwa Abdel-Rahman, protestor

Assad’s view, however, is not one shared by many. Syria’s exiled opposition called the presidential poll a theatrical farce. Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the Syrian Negotiation Commission, said: “This election shows contempt to the Syrian people. It’s a decision by the government, aided by Russia and Iran, to kill the political process. It’s a continuation of tyranny.”

In the opposition-held Idlib, protestors gathered against the elections, dismissing them as illegitimate and a “theatrical show.” Salwa Abdel-Rahman, one of the protestors, said: “I opened Facebook to see Bashar al-Assad electing himself. What a farce.” Polling stations were packed, but there were reports that people were forced to cast ballots. As one student noted, however: “It doesn’t matter – we all know what the results will be because these elections are just a show.”

Abroad, the reaction was similarly mixed. In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US said that the election would be “neither free nor fair” without UN supervision, adding: “We support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organisations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegitimate.” Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, called for “the rejection of the regime’s attempts to retain legitimacy without respecting the Syrian people’s human rights and freedom.”

Assad, for his part, rejected these concerns, claiming that most of those nations “have colonial history” and that “we as a state are not concerned about such statements.” Indeed, after voting, he said the opinion of the West counted for “zero.” In many ways, cementing his power is sending a message to the West – suggesting that Western support to armed militants against the government has failed to oust the leader. 

According to Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher and non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy: “The elections will be used by both the regime and Russia to show that they won, and they claim Syria is safe, so refugees can return. The election is also a factor in rehabilitating the regime among Arab countries, and maybe the Arab League.”

Assad will have to do something to try and put Syria’s economy back on track

Dealing with the civil war will likely be one of Assad’s top priority, but it’s certainly not the only one. Syrian’s economy is in a bad place – it has shrunk by more than 60% since 2010, and the Syrian pound has crashed, with a 300% inflation rate since the start of the war. It has been struggling in the face of Western sanctions, government corruption and infighting and, of course, the toll of dealing with Covid-19. 

The ongoing cash crisis in Lebanon has also accelerated Syria’s economic collapse. Lebanon is the country’s main link to the outside world, and restrictions put in place by Lebanese central banking authorities have put enormous strain on Syrian financial institutions.

The economy was on the government’s mind during the election. It took a number of steps to influence public opinion, including attempts to reduce inflation and the extension of government grants to state employees in areas experiencing economic hardship. It is uncertain whether these measures will continue now that the election has passed, but it’s certainly true that Assad will have to do something to try and put Syria’s economy back on track. 

There has been a pinch on employment, and the middle class has been gutted by the war. This has been due to the economic collapse, sanctions regimes and a limited national budget to subsidise commodities such as bread and fuel. Now, many Syrians are unable to provide for themselves.

The regime is just trying to show that this election is a new page and going to be a good thing for the Syrians

– Suhail al-Ghazi, Syrian researcher and non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

It’s been reported that poverty and inflation are now major topics of public conversation, and there’s likely to be more conflict and displacement if action isn’t taken. Public criticism of deteriorating living conditions is not tolerated, yet there’s still been unrest in the areas of Syria where Assad’s grip is weakest. But with around 90% of people living in regime-controlled areas now living in deep poverty, that criticism may become less uncommon.

The fact that Bashir al-Assad won the Syrian election comes as no surprise, and the international response – rejection by the West, support by Russia, Iran and other Syrian allies – is similarly expected. As Suhail al-Ghazi notes: “The regime is just trying to show that this election is a new page and going to be a good thing for the Syrians.” 

Faced with a decade of bloodshed and massive economic woes, the question is whether Assad can actually deliver on his election promise of a new Syria, or whether we should simply anticipate more of the same.

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