Beirut, Lebanon – From where he sits, in a lean-to made from cardboard and tarpaulin in Lebanon, Mohammad – who lives in the one-room structure with 10 relatives – believes his chances of having a say in the future of his home country, Syria, are limited.
Mohammad, who fled to Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli eight months ago after his home in Homs was destroyed by government forces, is one of an estimated nine million displaced Syrians who will not be casting a vote in the upcoming Syrian presidential elections. Observers dismiss the polls as a sham political manoeuvre by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to strengthen his grip on the country, and as an affront to international mediation efforts.
“It’s an insult to have elections when we have millions of Syrians displaced in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon,” said Mohammad, who asked that his real name not be used, citing fears for his family’s security. “Even if I could go back to Syria, how could I vote for a man that killed our brothers, family and friends? It’s a joke.”
Just across the border in Syria, the campaign to re-elect Assad is under way – in spite of the civil war that has left whole cities emptied and destroyed, and millions of people displaced.
Campaign under way
In Syria’s capital, Damascus, residents say posters and billboards show a picture of the president in military fatigues, with the slogan: “Millions campaign for the honest leader. We all want Assad.”
Shop fronts and doors in Damascus have been painted with the Syrian flag, with residents saying they were ordered to buy the paint under threat of fines or arrest. Pro-Assad rallies have been held in government-controlled areas, and cars adorned with images of the president and his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad drive around the capital blaring nationalistic songs.
Assad himself has not yet announced his nomination, but officials have said the vote will go ahead as scheduled. The election must be held before the end of Assad’s seven-year term on July 17. In a 2007 referendum on his re-election, Assad won with nearly 98 percent of the vote.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved amendments to electoral law allowing other contenders to run for the first time. The amendments, however, state that any candidate must be nominated by 35 members of Assad’s Baath party in parliament. Prospective candidates must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years, cannot hold any other citizenship and cannot be married to a non-Syrian woman. This prohibits many opposition figures, most of whom are in exile, from running. So far, no other contenders have stepped forward.
“I want to see who will stand against him. I don’t think he will be alone, but if only for the picture of democracy, someone else must run,” Mona, a Damascus resident from the pro-regime neighbourhood of Bab Touma, told Al Jazeera via Skype.
Sari, a young university student and Assad supporter from Barzeh, another pro-government area in Damascus, said he believes it is important to vote, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. “It’s a game and we are part of it, [whether] we like it or not. We vote yes or no; what they want is what they will get. For me, I’ll vote for Bashar. I like him and I’ve been pro-Assad from the first. Here we want stability and safety.”
Observers believe Assad may try to use the vote to his advantage on the diplomatic front. “The regime has always maintained the narrative that it is a normal state doing the things that normal states do,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government.
Assad has gained ground militarily against the rebels over the past year, giving him greater leverage at stalled international peace talks. UN-backed peace negotiations in Geneva collapsed in February over disagreement on a communique calling for a transitional government to lead the country out of the crisis, and Assad’s role in it.
The chief UN negotiator, Lakhdar Brahimi, has said that elections will hamper peace efforts. “If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition, all the oppositions, will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” he told reporters after a UN Security Council meeting in March.
The US has rejected the elections as an “illegitimate” move contradicting the terms of the Geneva communique.
“Elections at this stage are incompatible with the Geneva communique, which stipulates the process by which free and fair elections would be held after a transitional governing body is formed. Any elections held prior to the establishment of a transitional governing body would be illegitimate and its results would not be recognised by the international community or by the Syrian people,” a US State Department official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity. “The regime cannot possibly hold legitimate elections when more than 9 million Syrians are displaced. But the regime is not interested in a real election – just a stage-managed circus that will seek to extend Assad’s reign.”
Under the new Syrian constitution, which was approved in 2012, the president can remain in power for two seven-year terms, starting from the date the new constitution was approved. This means that Assad could, in theory, remain in power until 2028. The constitution also allows for the current presidential term to be extended by two years for security reasons.
“Assad is signalling that if you want a deal, this [his re-election] is the linchpin,” said Sayigh. “And he doesn’t need to offer any more.”