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Middle East

Syria approves new election law

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows a Syrian parliament meeting to discuss the election law in Damascus on March 12, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA)

DAMASCUS: Syria’s parliament unanimously approved a new election law Thursday allowing multiple candidates to run for president, opening the door – at least in theory – to other potential contenders besides President Bashar Assad.

The vote comes nearly four months before Assad’s seven-year term as president officially expires. Syrian officials say the presidential elections will be held on time and Assad has suggested he would run again, though he hasn’t confirmed whether he’ll seek re-election.

The poll must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s term ends on July 17.

Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since it seized power in a 1963 coup. Past presidential elections under Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad, were de-facto referendums with an Assad as the sole candidate.

The country held a referendum in March 2012 on a new constitution that allowed for a multiparty political system in Syria and multiple presidential candidates.

That referendum, held amid an escalating civil war, was part of gestures of reform meant to defuse the unrest. The opposition dismissed it as an attempt at superficial reforms that do nothing to break the president’s hold on power.

The bill adopted Thursday says only candidates who lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years prior to nomination can run for president. It also stipulates that candidates should be born to Syrian parents and must not have any other nationality.

State TV broadcast the vote live, but the speaker did not say how many lawmakers voted for the bill.

The article stipulating 10-year residency sparked limited debate – one MP proposed the requirement be reduced to five to seven years, while another legislator, who suggested that it be raised to 14, in line with that of the U.S., withdrew her proposal when it appeared to receive a less-than-enthusiastic reaction by her colleagues.

In the 1973 constitution, the article outlining candidacy requirements did not mention the need to reside in the country.

Some observers have noted that by introducing the residency requirement, many leading figures from the ranks of the opposition would automatically be disqualified from running, because they have been outside the country for long periods of time, whether before or after the March 2011 uprising broke out.

Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the former head of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, recently flirted with the idea of declaring his candidacy, after a grassroots campaign on Facebook quickly picked up support – but Khatib emphatically stepped back from taking part in an election organized by the regime. He would have been ineligible, based on Article 84’s residency requirement.

Khalid Saleh, a member of the coalition, said any notion that Assad may run demonstrates “the uttermost disregard for the blood” of the thousands of Syrians killed.

He said in a statement that the election law adopted by parliament was “illegitimate” and said the group “strongly rejects participation of opposition members as candidates against Assad in the presidential elections, as this would imply recognition by us of the legitimacy of his presence in the elections.”

The opposition has categorically refused the notion of presidential polls being held in Syria under the current circumstances. The coalition has called on Assad to step down in favor of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until free presidential and parliament elections can be held.

Issam Khalil, a member of parliament, dismissed the idea that the law was tailored for Assad.

“The parliament doesn’t accept that but what has been tailored to fit is the will of Syrians alone,” he said at Thursday’s parliament session.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 8.

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