What kind of elections?

The major conflict phase of the Syrian war is ending, with the American-supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces taking Raqqa and the Syrian regime with Iranian help likely taking Deir Azour. Only a few opposition-controlled enclaves remain in Idlib, north of Homs, northeast of Damascus, and in the south along the borders of Israel and Jordan. All are now more or less “de-escalated” zones. The regime, with heavy Russian and Iranian support, has mostly won the military contest, but that does not quite end the war.

The next phase will be more political. It is already outlined in general terms in UN Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). While all the deadlines in that resolution are blown, no one seems to doubt that the outlines of a “road map” for a supposedly “inclusive and Syrian-led process” remains valid:

  1. A political process lasting six months that sets a schedule for preparing a new constitution;
  2. Elections within 18 months pursuant to the new constitution, and administered under UN supervision.

The de-escalation zones have in some sense superseded the ceasefire, though that of course is still in principle desirable.

While there are many aspects of 2254 that have been ignored or superseded, these two pieces seem still to loom in the future, even if the time line may be significantly longer. During my visit to Turkey last week, opposition-affiliated folks were naturally anxious about what they could do in the next phase of this war.

How can an opposition that has largely lost the war gain some satisfaction in the peace? There will presumably at some point be a new UNSC resolution. The devil is in the details of that one. Here is what I think desirable with respect to elections. A future post will treat the constitution.

First, elections. While the first rule of post-war societies is that context matters and needs to be taken into account, as a general rule local elections should be held before national ones. It is rarely done (Kosovo is the only recent case I am aware of), largely because the internationals want to show progress. A national election usually satisfies their capitals, but local elections don’t.

There are at least five good reasons for doing local elections first, especially in Syria:

  1. Syria has never conducted anything resembling a free and fair election. Doing local elections first will be a test of the electoral mechanism and help to identify areas where it needs repair.
  2. Local elections will also help to identify who is emerging as political leaders: is it war criminals or extremists? If so, some rethinking by the internationals is in order. If not, the local elections will help the different political forces that emerge team up behind candidates for higher office.
  3. At the local level, voters are more likely to vote for people who can deliver services or advocate on issues, rather than on the basis of gender, ethnic, or sectarian identity. What do I care if the woman best equipped to collect the garbage, remove rubble, and pave the streets does not belong to my sect or ethnic group?
  4. Minorities and opposition are more likely to win at the local level than at the national level, because they are better organized and more numerous in particular communities. This matters a lot if the objective is inclusion, as it should be.
  5. National elections will favor the candidate with the best national organization backing him. That is still the Ba’ath party, which will of course back Bashar al Assad. Next in line nationally is likely the Muslim Brotherhood, though that is less clear.

So I’d be for local elections first, but only if they meet some exigent criteria.

First among these is absentee voting. More than half of Syrians are displaced. The standard in post-war elections since Bosnia is that recently internally displaced people and recent refugees should be permitted (not required) to vote where they came from. Otherwise, the election confirms ethnic, sectarian and political cleansing and makes it less likely that people will ever return (because those elected exclusive by those who remain in place may be hostile to returnees).

The problem with absentee voting is that it is complicated, especially in local elections. The ballot for each community has to be available in every other community, as well as in all polling places abroad. This can and has been done, but the UN resists it. No Syrian should be satisfied without absentee voting.

Nor should they be satisfied without intensive observation of the vote, including not only the procedures and counting on election day but also the performance of political parties and media during the campaign and the tabulation of the final tally. Intimidation often occurs far from the polls, both in distance and time. With armed groups likely still hanging around, observers need to be people who speak the local language and are willing to challenge malfeasance through whatever procedures are established by the electoral commission.

The key observers are long-term and local ones, not the internationals, who have only a rudimentary understanding of what is going on (even if they are expert in electoral systems) and generally move from polling place to polling place, rarely spending more than 15 minutes in any particular one. Their main role is to give a stamp of approval or disapproval and to embolden local observers, not to correct malfeasance. Multi-party local election observers can often be relied upon to stay in the same polling place all day, observing both the voting and the counting, thus ensuring that malfeasance on election day is minimized.

Once the counting is completed, results should be posted quickly and publicly at the polling place, so that they cannot be altered after transmission to the Damascus, where the sole responsibility should be ensuring that the ballots have been properly counted at the polling place. This is generally done by two separate teams and comparison of their results, making collusion in falsifying results very difficult.

An election run this way has a good chance of producing results that express the will of the people at the local level. That is the best outcome the opposition in Syria can hope for.




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