Debating Syria’s draft constitution

Syrians are divided over the proposed text and the timing chosen by Assad for the vote.

The constitution, if passed, would restrict the president to serving a maximum of two terms of seven years [Reuters]

Syria’s state-run news agency said that President Bashar al-Assad has set February 26 as the date for a national referendum on the country’s new draft constitution.

Parliamentary elections will be held within 90 days of the approval of the constitution, state television reported on Wednesday.

If passed, it would restrict the president to serving a maximum of two terms of seven years and introduce a pluralistic party system.

But with cities such as Homs in open revolt, Syrians are divided over the draft constitution and the timing chosen for the vote.

George Jabbour, the author of the book “Arabism and Islam in the Arab Constitutions“, believes that the draft constitution offers significant improvements from the older constitution. He expects turnout to be high and estimates the approval rate at 80 to 90 per cent.

Meanwhile, Nabil Samman, the head of the Centre for Research and Documentation in Damascus, says the draft constitution allows the president to retain most of his powers. He says the timing is inappropriate as violence continues in several cities.

Both of them spoke to Al Jazeera from the Syrian capital.

Q: What is new in this draft constitution?

JABBOUR: The constitution is a response to what many people called for during the recent events that took place in Syria. In general, there are many improvements to the old constitution, most significantly the removal Article 8 of the constitution, which states the ruling Baath party is the leading party. Moreover, for the first time, it mentions the concept of “human rights”, which did not exist in the former constitution.

SAMMAN: The only positive thing in this constitution is the removal of Article 8. I cannot see anything else positive in it. The president retains the same power, the parliament remains weak and there are many flaws in the articles, not to mention the bad timing of the vote.

Q: The president’s term, which remains for seven years in the new constitution draft, is renewable once. Is seven years a long time and can Assad still run for the presidency in 2014?

JABBOUR: The seven-year-term has been there since former president Hafez al-Assad came to power. He was inspired by the French constitution under Charles de Gaulle. While the French constitution has been amended afterward, this did not happen to Syria. This is because of Syria’s position and its need to remain stable. It needs a president that could be depended on to keep the country stable for a long time.

Look at the United States. Because of the short presidential term, the president only attends to the public interest for two-and-a-half years. In the other 18 months, he remains preoccupied with his electoral campaign.

We do not know if Assad will want to run again for the presidency in 2014.

SAMMAN: Under the new constitution, Assad could run again in 2014. His term could be extended and he could remain in power for 14 more years. By that time, he would be in his 60s. It is almost like ruling forever.

It is worth mentioning that people who have been living outside the country for more than 10 years will be banned from running for the presidency. This means that most opposition figures that were exiled by Assad’s regime cannot run.

Q: Does the parliament have more power under the new constitution?

JABBOUR: We would have liked to see the legislative authority be more empowered but there are some improvements in the constitution overall.

SAMMAN: The president has overriding authority over the parliament. He can dismiss the prime minister whenever he pleases without going back to the parliament. He can do anything without referring back to the parliament.

Q: What about the judiciary?

JABBOUR: For the first time, there will be a clear reference to the role and the powers of the constitutional judiciary. This was not the case in the older constitution. The president still gets to select the judges. This could have been different.

SAMMAN: Theoretically, there is separation among the different branches. But the reality is not like that. The law that allows the security apparatus to detain whomever they please without going back to the judiciary is still there. Security personnel still have immunity while in power. This means that they could kill whoever they want without being held responsible.

Q: If the Baath party is no longer the only permitted political party, does this mean that Syria would have a plural system?

JABBOUR: Yes. There are political parties being formed already. The committee responsible for approving political parties headed by the interior minister includes several judges.

SAMMAN: While the political parties law allow for pluralism, the Muslim Brotherhood remains banned under a previous law. Moreover, it is the interior minister who gets to choose which party could or could not be formed.

The budget of political parties is two million Syrian pounds ($34,900). With that money, the party leader can buy a car for him, a car for his assistant and the money is over. Meanwhile the Baath party may still be able to use money from the state budget because there is no clear article defining the position of Baath Party.

Q: Is the timing of the referendum on the constitution good? Are you expecting a high turnout? And how can residents of cities embroiled in violence – like Homs – vote?

JABBOUR: The timing is good. There has been pressure from the street to remove Article Eight and this is happening now.

We are expecting that the turnout will be high and the approval rate would be somewhere between 80 to 90 per cent. So if some residents do not vote, it will not change the results. Residents of these cities do not represent the whole of Syria.

SAMMAN: The timing in light of the violence is very wrong. There are areas that have no security at all. There are other areas where people are scared.

The time between the release of the draft constitution and the voting time is very short. There was little time to debate it. The opposition inside Syria has no chance to voice their opinion of it on national TV.

Moreover, the vote will take place on a Sunday [a working day in Syria]. What is expected is that employees in the public sector will be forced to cast their vote.

Source: Al Jazeera