By Adom M. Cooper
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
DAMASCUS, Syria–As the crackdown against civilians continued across the nation, the Syrian government called its citizens to the polls on Sunday 26 February 2012 to vote on a new constitution. Although the new text of the constitution ends the legal basis for the five-decade stranglehold o power for the ruling Baath party, it still leaves the executive powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad. This is a tremendous problem for the situation and had already been criticized by the opposition.
The opposition stated that the changes offered were entirely cosmetic and that only the removal of al-Assad from power will bring the desired changes. After 11 months of crackdowns, human rights groups have reported that more than 7,600 individuals have lost their lives, with more deaths occurring every day.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Saturday 25 February 2012, 98 individuals were killed and 72 of them were civilians.
On Sunday 26 February 2012, the polls opened at 7:00AM local time (5:00 GMT). Reports from the around Syria stated that more than 14 million people over the age of 18 eligible to vote appeared at the 13,835 polling stations.
Louay Safi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group, said that the new constitution would be fruitless in bringing about the desired change because it is being promulgated and offered by the current government. The same government that continues to violate its own laws in its ongoing efforts to crush the uprising.
“The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution. What we fear is if the regime stays intact, the new constitution will be meaningless. So the real step to have a new constitution is to have a new or transitional government.”
In the capital of Damascus, opposition activists claimed that they would try to hold protests near polling stations and even burn copies of the new constitution. One activist named Omar shared these words with Al-Jazeera on Sunday February 26 2012.
“No one is going to vote. This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed. More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? No one is going to vote.”
Another activist, Waleed Fares, shared these words from the Khalidiyah district of Homs.
“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or bullets? This is the only choice we have.”
On the reverse angle, Adel Safar, the country’s prime minister, stated on Sunday 26 February 2012 that the opposition’s call for a boycott displayed a lack of interest in a substantive dialogue for change.
“If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition to start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground.”
While the voting was underway, the violence did not take a break to visit the polls. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces shelled residential areas in Bab Amr for the 26th day in a row, claiming at least nine lives. The group stated that rebel soldiers had also killed at least four government troops in the city.
Al-Baath, the ruling party’s newspaper, stated in an editorial this week that the new constitution “does not represent a loss for the party and just keeps up with political and social evolution.” The new text does eliminate all references to Syrias as a social state. But Article 60 maintains the mandate that half of the deputies must be “workers and farmers.”
Al-Assad would remain in power under the new constitution, keeping several important responsibilities such as naming the prime minister and the ability to veto legislation. Another provision in the new constitution that has drawn negative attention in Article 3, which states that the president should be a Muslim and that “Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.”
Sunni Muslims makeup 75 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million, while the Alawite community accounts for another 12 percent. President al-Assad comes from the Alawite community and this further exacerbates his refusal to relinquish his power.
Article 88 of the new constitution also states that the president can be in office for two seven-year terms. But subsequent Article 155 states that these conditions would only take effect after the next election for the head of state, which is set for 2014. This would allow al-Assad to theoretically stay in power for another 16 years. This is unacceptable for the Syrian people and quite frankly, would be a nightmare for all of them.
Syrian specialist Thomas Pierret said stated that regardless of the proposed and debated changes, the type of government and political system in Syria does not matter in a country “dominated by the intelligence service.”
“Nothing indicates that this would change under the current regime.”
For more information, please see:
Ahram – Syria Puts New Constitution To Vote In Thick of Unrest – 26 February 2012
Al-Jazeera – Syria Holds Vote On New Constitution – 26 February 2012
BBC – Syria Votes On New Constitution Referendum Amid Unrest – 26 February 2012
CNN – Syria Says Referendum Results Coming Monday; Vote Punctuated By New Violence – 26 February 2012
The Guardian – Syria Votes On New Constitution As Shelling Of Homs Continues – 26 February 2012
NYT – Syria Offers A New Charter As Battles In Cities Continue – 26 February 2012
Reuters – Syria Referedum Goes Ahead Amid Military Onslaught – 26 February 2012