BEIRUT: The campaigns of Syria’s first presidential election are winding down ahead of Tuesday’s vote, which is expected to see President Bashar Assad coast to a victory that many of his opponents and some Western officials have deemed a farce. But the regime has put considerable time and effort into stage-managing the proceedings and is doing everything it can to ensure that its desired message is heard: “Assad has support, Assad has been re-elected, and thus you still have to deal with him.”
The result of the vote, the first popular election of a Syrian president to be held with a multicandidate format, is considered by most to be a foregone conclusion.
The choreography began with the first round of announcements that candidates were coming forward to contest the race. These conveniently took place during a televised session of Parliament, as the speaker was interrupted daily, just after noon, with envelope after envelope delivered to him from the Constitutional Court.
In the end, MP Maher Hajjar and ex-minister Hassan Nouri made the cut from among Assad and 23 hopefuls. One of them, an army officer, was later captured by rebels and stated, in a YouTube video, that his superiors ordered him to file for candidacy, and when he declined, he was told he and his family would be killed if he refused.
George Kadr, a writer and media professional based outside Syria, said it was one of the early signs of the “surreal” nature of the election campaign period that played out.
“You had these pro-regime television stations doing person-in-the-street interviews at the outset, mobilizing support for the ‘democratic wedding,’ as they called it,” he said.
“At times, the people would be laughing, and answering the questions, but in a way trying to show they were in on some kind of joke,” he said.
In a few cases, the interviewees objected to the notion of holding a multicandidate poll, until they were firmly reminded that this was now the law.
The regime heavily promoted the election on various media, while rallies and marches were held on a daily basis throughout government-held areas.
Hajjar and Nouri, meanwhile, began a series of media appearances and released promotional videos, while Assad’s own campaign, titled “Sawa” (together), has been free of any public addresses or statements by the head of state.
Regime opponents have highlighted how Hajjar and Nouri’s campaigns have been walking a tightrope, talking about national problems that need to be addressed while praising Assad’s leadership.
Hajjar, a former communist, has played the role of the fiery ideologue – among his stated goals are to confront American imperialism and topple pro-American regimes in the region, presumably after the war in Syria is won.
Nouri, in contrast, has come across as a technocrat, talking about the need to improve economic performance and build ties with foreign countries.
In an interview with AP Sunday, Nouri reiterated the motif of the challengers’ campaign – Assad is fine, but other things need to change.
“I do believe that President Assad leading his political file was a very strong leader,” Nouri said. “When you find a leader like him, fighting this kind of war and this unbelievable terrorism, terrorist action in every place in our country, you have to respect what he’s doing.
“But I can tell President Assad, ‘Yes, you did very well in the political file,’ but I think his people, the economists in his government, were not doing well the last 10 years.”
Hajjar has railed more vehemently against corruption, but in the case of both men’s campaigns, there is no mention of Assad’s personal role in anything negative.
“They talk about fixing things in general,” Kadr said. “But it’s the kind of stuff that we used to write in [Syrian] newspapers before the crisis. And in some ways, the Baath Party’s own 10th congress of 2005 had harsher things to say than what these two are saying today.”
Midway through the campaign, Nouri made a tour of shops in Souk al-Hamidieh in Damascus.
Anti-regime activists used the tour to poke further fun at the election, highlighting how large photographs of Assad appear in the various shops where Nouri is pressing the flesh with voters.
The Hajjar campaign was shaken throughout the run-up to the election by a Facebook page claiming to speak in his name. Some of the posts stirred controversy, such as his response to Syrian Christians demanding that the post of president be opened to them: Christians were not doing enough to defend the country against the “terrorist” threat to make such a demand, the post said, earning Hajjar considerable criticism.
Arab and foreign media outlets also pounced on the fiery posts, finally obliging Hajjar to issue vehement public denials during a television appearance that he had anything to do with the page.
“This is a guy who appeared in a television promotional spot about his campaign,” Kadr said, referring to Hajjar.
“However, nearly a week went by with this Facebook page making statements in his name and causing a commotion, and he didn’t have anyone around him to issue a statement to the media or help him open his own page?”
Both Nouri and Hajjar were mocked viciously on social media, Kadr said, adding that “the most vile, obscene kind of language was used” against them by regime supporters.
Kadr said that one could tally a whole series of surreal aspects of the campaign period, such as the statements by Russian officials, voicing opposition to elections taking place in Ukraine because the government there was using violence to crack down on separatists.
Several prominent figures in the Syria-based opposition, meanwhile, have openly dismissed the elections as objectionable during a time of war. Louay Hussein, Haitham Mannaa and Qadri Jamil, symbols of the so-called “officially permitted opposition,” have either called for a boycott or bluntly stated that the poll would not lead to any desired changes and should not have been held.
The more hard-line opponents of Assad, meanwhile, have launched a series of Twitter and other social media campaigns against holding the vote during a time of war.
Kadr said that despite the contradictions and voices of protest, the regime was achieving its goals.
Merely holding the polls is an achievement, and for a few weeks now, the regime has been able to dominate the news – with images emphasizing that it is holding elections, and that Assad has support, as demonstrated by the turnout during last week’s voting by expats.
He said the photos of tens of thousands of people in Lebanon converging on the Syrian Embassy served as a “shock” to supporters of the opposition.
“You can criticize and make fun all you want, but in the end, the regime controlled the messaging.”
The big question that remains is how election day will unfold inside Syria and whether the public will see a similar mass turnout. Rebel attacks on polling stations – should they take place – will likely prove to be an enduring image of election day, unless the regime manages to mobilize tens of thousands of people for a peaceful, democratic wedding.