Syria court selects two ‘rivals’ to face Assad in May vote

Syria’s constitutional court selects two obscure figures to stand against Bashar al-Assad in presidential election.

The higher constitutional court, headed by Jihad Al Laham, approved only three out of 51 applicants to stand in the May 26 ballot [Firas Makdesi/Reuters]

Syria’s higher constitutional court has selected a former minister and a member of the Damascus-tolerated opposition to face Bashar al-Assad in this month’s presidential election.

The Assad-appointed body on Monday approved three out of 51 applicants to stand in the May 26 ballot, among them the 55-year-old president himself, widely expected to win a fourth mandate.

Jihad al-Laham, the court’s president, said in a press conference broadcast on state TV that Abdallah Salloum Abdallah, a state minister from 2016 to 2020, had been approved to run for president.

The third candidate was named as Mahmoud Marei, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition” long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.

Damascus views the election as the governing system functioning normally despite the war. The opposition and Western countries view it as a farce to keep Assad in power indefinitely and head off negotiations to end the conflict.

All 48 other applications were ruled out for “failing to meet constitutional and legal requirements”, the court president said, without elaborating. They have until May 7 to appeal.

Applicants needed to garner support from at least 35 members of parliament, each of whom is only allowed to back one candidate.

Exiled opposition members are de facto ruled out by an electoral law that stipulates candidates must have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past 10 years.

The conflict

The election will be the second since the start of a decade-long conflict that has killed more than 388,000 people and forced more than half of Syria’s prewar population from their homes.

Damascus has invited legislators from allied countries such as Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Cuba to observe the electoral process.

In New York last week, Western members of the United Nations Security Council, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, rejected the outcome of the May 26 poll in advance, a position denounced by Russia as “unacceptable”.

Al-Assad, who has already been in power for 21 years, was elected by referendum in 2000 and 2007. For the first multi-candidate poll in 2014, only two candidates besides al-Assad, out of 24 applicants, were allowed to run.

Campaigning is set to start on May 11, while Syrians abroad can vote at their embassies on May 20.

Al-Assad has taken measures in recent months to ease public dissatisfaction fed by anger over eroding living conditions and a plunging currency, including raising state salaries, cracking down on currency speculators and bringing the official exchange rate closer into line with the black market.

His opponents say some of the new measures, such as cheap loans, favour his politically and economically powerful allies, including members of his Alawite minority sect who dominate the state and security forces.

On Sunday, al-Assad issued an amnesty waiving penalties on some draft dodgers, currency speculators, smugglers and petty criminals, which relatives hope could lead to the release of some civic activists imprisoned in recent months.

Source: News Agencies