Inside Story
Syria: Votes amid violence
Can a constitutional referendum boycotted by the opposition and dismissed as a farce by many have any real meaning?
Last Modified: 28 Feb 2012 15:09

The Syrian government has announced overwhelming approval for its new constitution, after a referendum held on Sunday.

The government daily Tishrin said: "This referendum is a success for the Syrians who have faith in reforms and
is a defeat for the Arab regimes and the West who want to destabilise our country."

But the nationwide vote was not well received by all - it was boycotted by opposition groups and largely dismissed as a farce by international politicians.

President Bashar al-Assad unveiled the proposed new charter earlier this month, which in theory ends the Baath Party's grip on power and paves the way for some political change.

The leader promised elections in 90 days if the new constitution is adopted, and state television announced that 89 per cent of voters voted 'yes'.

But with many parts of the country still reeling from military assault, activists are calling the vote meaningless.

"It's a phoney referendum and it is going to be used by Assad to justify what he's doing to Syrian citizens." 

- Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state

While casting his vote at the state broadcasting headquarters, al-Assad showed no sign of ending the crackdown on protesters, but tried to deflect blame in other directions, saying: "The attack launched against us is a media attack, that's why media is important, but eventually media doesn't surpass reality. So maybe they are stronger than us in space but we are stronger on the ground, and I will leave that to you."

But regional Arab leaders have been voicing their opinion on the referendum in Syria. Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, said: "I don't think it's the right time setting elections in such circumstances going around in big towns like Homs, Derra, Aleppo."

While Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, said: "While a new constitution and the end of the Baath Party monopoly on power could be part of a political solution, a referendum must take place in conditions free of violence and intimidation."

So, amid the controversy, the Syrian government has pushed through the draft constitution that includes 14 new and 47 amended articles.

So, could this referendum on a new constitution signal real change for Syria or is it just a sham?

Joining Inside Story to debate this are: Fadi Salem, a blogger and researcher on social media and open government in the Arab world; Yaser Tabbara, a lawyer and member of the Syrian National Council; and George Jabbour, a former legislator for the Syrian government and an advisor to the late Syrian president. 

Victoria Nuland, the US state department's spokesperson, has questioned how "any kind of democratic process" could take place while Syrian government guns, tanks and artillery were still firing into Homs and other cities.

"We dismiss it [the referendum] as absolutely cynical," Nuland said of the balloting. "Essentially what he's done here is put a piece of paper that he controls to a vote that he controls so that he can try to maintain control."

Highlights of the proposed Syrian constitution:
  • The introduction of a multi-party system, ending the Baath Party's 50 year monopoly on power
  • The draft also restricts the president to just two, seven year terms in office
  • But that is not retroactive, meaning al-Assad could still be in power until 2028
  • The new president still has to be Muslim, his wife has to be Syrian and must have lived in Syria for 10 years
  • This rules out minority Christians and many of Bashar al-Assad's opponents in exile
  • A candidate must have the support of 35 members of the parliament
  • A candidate must also be Syrian by birth, of parents who are Syrians by birth and must be at least 40 years old
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