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Syrian elections: Bashar al-Assad's illegitimacy and pervasiveness

The external opposition is still barred from standing for election under the current constitution
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AFP/ LOUAI BESHARA  -   Portraits of President Bashar al-Assad in Umawiyin Square in the Syrian capital Damascus on 3 May 2021, ahead of this month's presidential election

Ten years after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Arab country is facing a new electoral process under the government control of the current president and without the participation of opposition parties outside the country.

As reported by the official Syrian news agency SANA, "The chairman of the Council of Deputies, Hamuda Sabag, announces 26 May as the date for the presidential elections, and 20 May for the vote of Syrians abroad". However, the external opposition has called for the elections not to be recognised as legitimate.

In this regard, the current Constitution requires that in order to stand as a candidate, one must have lived in Syria for the last ten years, which means that exiled opponents would be excluded from the electoral process, an action that they claim is anti-democratic. Moreover, these elections do not allow the presence of international observers.  

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AP/DUSAN VRAMIC -In this June 3, 2014 file photo, a woman votes for President Bashar Assad by marking the ballot with blood from her pricked finger, in Damascus, Syria

Al-Asad has validated the candidacy for a fourth term and the candidates who are allowed to stand in the elections scheduled for 26 May. Of the 51 candidates put forward for the elections, only three were accepted by the president: Nasserist and former state minister Abdullah Salloum, Syria's internal opposition leader and Geneva negotiator Mahmoud Ahmad, and President Bashar al-Assad himself.

The Shia Al-Asad family has been in power in Syria for 50 years. In 2000, Bashar Al-Asad assumed power after the death of his father. In the beginning, the new president seemed to begin to pursue a more socially-oriented set of policies after implementing anti-corruption policies and releasing some prisoners imprisoned by his father. However, army figures began to join the new government and repressive actions against the opposition began to strain a population eager to see political change. Inspired by the eruption of the Arab Spring, what began as a peaceful uprising against the regime in March 2011 turned into one of the cruelest wars humanity has ever witnessed. 

In the last election in 2014, in the midst of the war, al-Assad managed to become president in a highly disputed victory with 88.7% of the vote. In what would become three years of civil war, 160,000 people died in the conflict and almost three million people were forced to leave their homes. Al-Assad's critics and the Syrian opposition in rebel-held areas accused the elections of being fraudulent. 
 

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AFP/ LOUAI BESHARA -Syria will hold presidential elections on 26 May, the speaker of parliament has announced on 18 April 2021, the country's second in the shadow of civil war, which is seen as likely to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power

After ten years of a bloody war that has been the scene of crimes against humanity, Al-Assad's control over the army has been key to keeping him in power. He is also supported by Russian military forces, which occupy a large part of the ground.

This grip on power has led Syria and its people into one of the biggest humanitarian crises of our century. Amnesty International has accused the current president of being "responsible for a policy of extermination" against the opposition and the UN has published several reports and studies on the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population in the area of Guta, a territory on the outskirts of Damascus.

With the capture of Eastern Guta, one of the main opposition strongholds, several enclaves near Damascus fell in 2018 and Assad was able to move forward to lead the recovery of the territory.

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AP/HASSAN AMMAR - In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, residents walk through the destruction of the Salaheddine neighbourhood, eastern Aleppo, Syria

Still, 30 per cent of the country is under Kurdish control, initially supported by the US. The Kurdish intervention stemmed from the support of an international coalition to defeat Daesh. After achieving victory in different territories such as Raqa and Kobane, the Kurds have remained in the area, but are now facing different offensives led by Turkish militiamen.

Now, according to al-Assad, Syria must face other battles related to the economy, 'the fight against corruption' and propaganda. However, the economic crisis has plunged the country into a historic inflation that barely allows the population to access basic resources. Alongside this, the shortage of crude oil and international sanctions may push the country into a negotiation process in an attempt to curtail Assad's power. 

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PHOTO/SANA via REUTERS - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma cast their vote inside a polling station during parliamentary elections in Damascus, Syria, July 19, 2020

The country is in ruins and the EU and the US have already stated that if a democratic transition does not take place they will continue to help with reconstruction resources. On the other hand, Assad seems unwilling to step down and his eldest son, Hafez, could be expected to succeed him.