Syria's ruling Baath party has begun its first congress in five years, with opposition figures expected to pressure members to approve careful reform measures.
Baath party members said on Monday that the four-day meeting should authorise new political parties and free local elections, although restrictions are likely to accompany the reforms.
Opening the conference, President Bashar al-Aِssad said the challenges facing Syria "dictates on us, the Baath party, to rally our efforts for the purposes of enhancing our identity and reacting to the fast-paced changes around us."
He told the 1200 delegates at the conference that the party "must enlarge popular participation through a greater opening in the direction of national forces which open the way to all for contributing towards the building of Syria," he said, wthout giving details.
Ayman Abd al-Nur, a self-described reformer and Baath party member, told journalists the 6-9 June congress would propose free local elections in 2007 and a new law on political parties, allowing them to form as long as they are not "religion- or ethnic-based".
Syria's emergency law has been in effect since 1963 and gives sweeping powers to state security forces that have backed a one-party government.
Syria's emergency law has been
in effect since 1963
In April, the Muslim Brotherhood - an Islamist group banned since an uprising in the 1980s that marked the biggest challenge to Damascus to date - renewed its call for free elections and an end to the state of emergency.
Opposition figure Riad Turk does not expect much to be achieved at this year's conference.
"I do not think that the congress will create miracles because in my opinion it is not the Baath party that is in power. Those who govern are the military, the secret services, the mafia and the families," he told Lebanon's Mustaqbal newspaper.
"The congress might allow the regime to offer some concessions to society and the opposition like relaxing security control but these are far from the wishes of society and the objectives of the opposition."
"It is not the Baath party that is in power. Those who govern are the military, the secret services, the mafia and the families".
However, the editor-in-chief of the official daily Ath-Thawra, Fayez Sayegh, gave a more positive prediction, saying, "Syria has been engaged for five years in a process of reforms, before pressures were put on it.
"The pressures will hold up reforms, and the more they intensify the more they will be an obstacle to the process of reform," he said.
The Baath party, which means "resurrection" in Arabic, is founded on notions of Arab nationalism and unity and took power in Syria in 1963.
Its last congress was in 2000, when it nominated Bashar al-Assad to lead the party following the death of his father, former president Hafez al-Assad.
The younger al-Assad presented himself as a reformer and his political message was viewed by the opposition as signalling much-anticipated democratic change.