Syria’s Referendum: A Turn towards Democracy, or Just Lip Service?

By Aditi Annapurna:

On Sunday, the 26th of February, 2012, Syria held a reasonably-democratic referendum amidst the bloody chaos that the country has been encountering almost every day for the past few months. The referendum was conducted to gauge public opinion on reforming the Syrian Constitution. The next day, the government declared the results of the referendum – results that indicated at an almost-unanimous response from the citizens, results that were too good to be true, results that a poll such as this, which covered 8 million people, could have yielded vastly different opinions within the country. 89% of the people voted in favour of a reformed Constitution.

I seem to have a problem with this seemingly-happy ending, for more reasons than one.

Picture Courtesy: http://www.thenews.com.pk

A referendum held in such turmoil-embroiled conditions raises a several set of questions to its credibility. Considering the large-scale massacre that the country has been witnessing and the very obvious and apparent pressure and restrictions being imposed on the media, one wonders whether the voters actually know exactly what they are voting for or against. Did the Syrian government and those conducting the referendum really tell its people exactly what implications the changed Constitution would bring?

A second question that arises is that of the people who didn’t appear for the referendum. What were the reasons stated by those who didn’t? According to the polling authorities, 60% people cast their votes in the referendum. And 40% isn’t a small minority – it exists as a significant portion of a population, a population that would have been fully capable of altering the results of the referendum. Therefore, while the number of people surveyed was a good 8 million, the referendum failed to gauge the opinions of the remaining 40%, the remaining 5.33 million people. A truly democratic study of popular opinion takes into account the preferences of the entire population, and gives an equal weightage and voice to the dissident population.

The provisions that the New Constitution would imply are an issue in themselves. The new Constitution would drop a clause that earlier made the current President Bashar al-Assad’s party, the Baath Party, the leader of State and Society, and also add a clause which limits Presidential tenure to 2 seven-year terms. While the two may seem desirable prospects, they carry possible dangers with themselves. The latter law would not be retrospective, i.e. wouldn’t be enforceable on existing circumstances. This means that Assad would, even in the presence of the new law, be permitted to continue his Presidential term for two more seven-year periods after his current one matures in 2014. Meaning that he’d have the power – legal and otherwise, to be President till 2028.

There are a few things that need to be weighed in while judging the efficacy of this Referendum. The political situation in Syria, for one. Is this the best time to hold such a survey? For, there is a very real possibility of this referendum as being a move by the Assad government to co-opt dissent of any form. The crimes that are being committed in these few days are also not to be overlooked – there are many more pressing issues to deal with – the gross massacres being committed and the many violations of basic and inalienable Human Rights these killings involve need to be addressed. Perhaps such a referendum would be make more sense and be more effective when conducted when the political atmosphere is more calm and non-volatile, and the turnout of voters in a more socially stable environment would probably be higher, thus ensuring a more comprehensive survey of national opinion.

I do not consider military intervention or any form of foreign intervention as a particularly singular solution to the situation in Syria. I do not propose a set-up where Assad be brought to justice on an international forum, and Humanitarian intervention be implemented. In the past many cases, humanitarian interventions have done more harm than good, something which can be seen in the case of Libya. For, Change can be brought about only when willed by the Individuals, themselves. In the context of Syria, there needs to be a construction of a newer order of Political System and Method. The country needs to rise from the ashes of its previous mistakes and elect a government that is truly Of the People and For the Needs of the People. Syria needs to awaken from its slumber and gather forces of dissidents, both the rebels and the quieter opposition, to create an organised, more peaceful movement towards restoring Democracy, Calm and Method to its State and Society.

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