A vote for legitimacy

New beginning Bashar al-Assad casts his vote during the Syrian presidential elections in Damascus
New beginning Bashar al-Assad casts his vote during the Syrian presidential elections in Damascus

Of course, these Syrian presidential elections must be the “parody” and “farce” that western officials and media are relentlessly claiming.

Bashar al-Assad’s thumping victory in the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Syria means that a majority of the people support Assad, the army, the State and the “system”.

Which immediately brings into question the past three years of conflict: was there ever actually a widespread, popular uprising against Assad? Or not?

Well, not if Assad had failed to win a respectable majority (he won 88.7 percent of the votes), and more importantly, if a significant percentage of Syrians took the trouble to actually show up and vote (73.47 percent did).

Voter turnout was critical in these elections. Syria’s foes will go to the wall with claims of fraudulent votes, but they can hardly contest the visuals of millions of Syrians casting them.

Which is why western “democracies” and many Arab allies have sought to inhibit the democratic process by obstructing Syrians from voting in their countries. It is embarrassing for them then that thousands of Syrian refugees crossed the Lebanese border to vote (Lebanon initially threatened they would not be able to return), and that Syrians from the US, Kuwait, UAE, France, Holland and elsewhere chartered flights to Damascus so they can have their votes counted.

It is also why Syrian rebels shelled and bombed their way across Aleppo, Homs and other areas in the lead-up to the elections: a threat for voters to stay home.

Legitimacy. It is what Syrians are seeking to establish with these elections, and what their adversaries are trying hard to deny. You can intervene to aid a population against an illegitimate government. But you would be in contravention of international law if you did so against a State that enjoys legitimacy. It would be an act of war — to supply weapons, train mercenaries, to fund and fuel conflict. It would be “subverting the will of the Syrian people”.

While western audiences expressed surprise and scepticism at scenes of Syrians flocking to cast votes for Assad, foreign officials everywhere knew this would happen. This is the dirty little secret that Assad’s adversaries have spent three years trying to bury: he has always clearly maintained a small majority of Syrian support.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, UN commissioner for the Independent International Commission of Inquiry for Syria, was one of the first officials to publicly acknowledge support for Assad in early 2013: “There is quite a number of the population, maybe as many as half — if not more — that stand behind him.”

In February, Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon Dr Ghazanfar Roknabadi publicly quoted the pleas of UN Under- Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman, during a visit with Iranian officials in Tehran, to nix Assad’s participation in Syrian elections because “if he runs, he will win the elections”.

If it were possible to suspend the enormous weight of western media disinformation for a moment, the reason for Assad’s continued support during the past three years is fairly logical:

• Assad never lost the support of his core constituencies — the Syrian armed forces, the government and business elite, the major cities, the minorities (Christians, Druze, Alawites, Shia, etc) and the secular Sunnis (most of the three million members of the Baath Party are Sunni)

• The opposition was fundamentally unable to present a cohesive front and a common political platform — this includes both domestic and external opponents — let alone rally behind a single candidate

This is why, if Syrian National Coalition (SNC) president Ahmad al-Jarba himself had run against Assad in verifiably- fraud-proof elections, he would have lost.

Jarba is, of course, the Syrian candidate that most western nations and many Arab League member States have rallied behind — even though he received only 55 Syrian votes to gain this unusual “legitimacy”.

Assad garnered millions of votes, but those nations insisting on Syrian “democracy” and “legitimacy” are happy to hand over Syria’s embassies to a man with 55 votes. Is this a farce? Or is it a parody?

“How can you hold elections during a war/conflict/ humanitarian crisis?” demand these opponents. None, of course, objected when elections were held in US and NATO -occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, under the auspices and direction of the occupying army. Some elections enjoy “legitimacy” just because we say so… apparently.

For a bit of unexpected comic relief, Jarba penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post on 2 June in which he invokes former US president Abraham Lincoln. Did nobody tell Jarba that Lincoln was re-elected during the most brutal domestic conflict in US history — that thing called the Civil War?

In fact, 11 US states (including important ones like Texas, Virginia and Florida) where Lincoln barely received votes, got so upset when he was first elected they decided to leave the Union. Lincoln fought a war to defeat those “rebels” and went on to be immortalised on the five-dollar bill.

(Note: Lincoln’s re-election in 1864 was viewed as a referendum on the direction of the then-three-year civil war. If he won, it meant Americans backed the Union’s military campaign against the south; it he lost, it would undermine the legitimacy of the war effort. He was asked to postpone the election, but rejected that proposal saying: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forego or postpone a national election, it might already fairly claim to have conquered and ruined us.”)

Another criticism lobbed by opponents is that Syrians outside of government-controlled areas can’t vote. Well, that is true, but this is because rebels didn’t allow it. However, it should be noted that most of the millions of displaced Syrians have fled these rebel-controlled areas and are now mostly in government-controlled areas, where they can and did cast votes.

Doesn’t that still disenfranchise potentially millions of Syrians who were unable to vote? Yes, possibly. But that didn’t stop these same western countries from declaring the recent Ukrainian polls a resounding success, even though there was virtually no voting in Donetsk and Luhansk and elections were bypassed altogether in Crimea.

The first US presidential election in 1789 didn’t even count the votes of North Carolina, New York and Rhode Island, even though the Union was only made up of 13 states at the time. George Washington ran uncontested and most of the votes were not cast by American citizens, but by unelected delegates. And he too has been immortalised on US currency — this time on the one-dollar bill.

A parody of democracy? Oh, most certainly a farce. Americans have FOUR times cast votes for a president that the electoral college didn’t select. The most recent being in 2000 when over one million more Americans cast votes for Al Gore, but George W Bush won the presidency because of some 500 Florida votes that the US Supreme Count refused to recount.

No elections seem to be without irregularities these days, and so voter participation really does become a factor in gauging “legitimacy”. Do citizens have enough trust in their system of governance to want to engage?

Let us look at some recent elections to get a sense of “legitimacy”: Nearly 73 percent of eligible Iranians cast votes in the 2013 presidential elections; in the hotly contested 2009 elections, that number was close to 85 percent. In Venezuela, 79 percent cast votes in 2013, and 80 percent in 2012 for Hugo Chavez. Russian presidential elections in 2012 saw a participation rate of 65 percent, while the last US elections ushering in Barack Obama’s second term recorded 57 percent in voter turnout.

Winning a whopping 92 percent of the vote, new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi only managed to attract 46 percent of voters last month. In Iraq’s April election, some statistics suggest a 60 percent turnout but voting was restricted or non-existent in parts of Anbar province, with troops surrounding Fallujah and street battles in Ramadi. Afghanistan’s election, while lauded by its occupiers for the “massive turnout” (no actual figures yet available), was also distinguished by the fact that 1,000 of the anticipated 7,500 polling centres were closed because of potential threat of violence.

In short, elections these days are all over the place. They take place in wartime; they take place under occupation. Voters participate heavily in some, and shun others — war or peace makes little difference, it seems.

On 3 June, Syrians cast votes across much of their country. The situation was not ideal. Millions are displaced, a war rages, all Syrians do not have access to polls. But Syrians still turned out in force — to the surprise of many — to participate in forging the direction of their nation. Do they love Bashar al-Assad? Or do they just seek stability? Who cares? As the turnout was large and the winning candidate was selected by a wide margin, this speaks directly to what “the Syrian people” have decided.

Legitimacy can only be conferred by the citizens within a nation — this is never an issue that can be decided by foreigners outside a country, no matter how much they blare it from headlines to sway perception.

Farce? Parody? Tell it to Abe Lincoln. And then go mind your own business.

That is the thing about elections — they tell a very particular story. You can choose not to listen, you can toy with the tale, but you can’t change the ending.

Sharmine Narwani is an independent Lebanese columnist based in Beirut

[email protected]

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