Elections in Syria include a presidential referendum, legislative elections, and municipal elections. Candidates must run as independents or as members of a party affiliated with the National Progressive Front (al-Jabha al-Wataniyah at-Taqadumiyah), a political agglomeration consisting of seven parties with the Arab Socialist Ba’th Party at the center. Two new parties have joined the Front in recent years but have yet to be fully licensed. The most recent presidential referendum occurred on May 17, 2007; the most recent legislative elections occurred on April 22 and 23, 2007. Municipal elections were last held in 2003.
Election Laws, Systems and Processes
The president holds the highest executive office of the Syrian Arab Republic. In addition, the executive branch consists of vice-presidents, a prime minister, and a Council of Ministers, all of whom are appointed by the president. Candidates for the presidency must be Arab Syrian nationals at least 34 years of age. The term of the office of president is seven years. A candidate for president is first proposed by the Ba’th (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party and nominated by the legislative branch, the People’s Assembly. After the nomination process, the candidate is then confirmed by a popular referendum in which the candidate must capture a majority of the votes. If the candidate fails to secure a majority, the People’s Assembly nominates another candidate and the referendum process is repeated. Suffrage is granted to all Syrian nationals over the age of 18. Voting is not compulsory.
The legislative branch is composed of a unicameral chamber, the People’s Assembly (Majlis al-Shaab). The 250 members of the People’s Assembly are elected for four-year terms from 15 multi-seat constituencies under the electoral rules of the party-list system. Members of the People’s Assembly must be at least 25 years of age. In 1980, the government decided that independent candidates could hold up to 83 seats in the legislature. The remaining 167 seats are reserved for parties that are members of the National Progressive Front (al-Jabha al-Wataniyah at-Taqadumiyah). Article 53 of the Constitution of 1973 states that half of the 250 seats are reserved for workers and peasants. Article 8 of the Constitution declares the Ba’th Arab Socialist Party to be the leading party in the state.
The Syrian government prepared a new law for local administration in April 2005 that leads to free elections of all 15,000 members of municipal councils in the local elections scheduled for 2007. The new law abandons the "Closed Lists" nominated by the ruling Baath Party and parties of the National Progressive Front. In other words for the first time since 1972 Syrians will freely elect their representatives at all levels of local government except for provincial governors, who are appointed by a presidential decree. The Baath Party leadership decided to abolish the "representation ratios" system that gave workers and peasants 60% of municipal seats and all other social groups 40%. The experiment of "Open Lists" was initially applied to towns and villages in the 2003 local elections.
Article 62 of the Constitution asserts that the Supreme Constitutional Court settles disputes arising from the election process. The Supreme Constitutional Court is headed by the president, who appoints the other four members. If the court rules that the elections were suspect or questionable, the matter is then sent to the People’s Assembly. A legislator’s membership in the People’s Assembly can only be invalidated by a majority vote of the People’s Assembly.
The most recent Syrian presidential election took place on May 17, 2007. President Bashhar Al-Asad was the only candidate who ran for a second 7-year term. The number of eligible voters was 11.967 million, including the military and civilian prisoners who were not deprived by judicial rulings from the right to vote. The number of citizens who voted in the referendum was 11.1999 million, putting the participation rate at 95.86%. Official referendum results showed that 97.62% of the voters approved the renewal of Asad's term in office. Only 19,653 voters voted "No" to renewal, while 253.000 ballots were invalid. The Syrian constitution states that a presidential candidate must receive an absolute majority of cast votes. Unlicensed opposition parties called on Syrian citizens to boycott the referendum.
The most recent legislative elections in Syria took place on April 22 and 23, 2007. The number of eligible citizens was 12 million, but the number of citizens who applied for and received a new voting card was 7.6 million, while 516,000 citizens were denied the right to vote for undisclosed reasons. There were 9645 candidates running in 15 electoral districts that include 10,882 voting centers. The previous parliament set a ceiling for electoral propaganda spending at 3 million Syrian pounds (US$ 60,000) per candidate. The NPF fielded 7000 candidates, including 132 Baathist candidates and 36 candidates representing the other 9 NPF parties selected by the Front’s leadership. Thus, there were only 2500 candidates who actually competed for the 83 “free” seats that were not reserved for the NPF. The total membership of the Front is estimated at 2.5 million, most of whom belong to the Baath Party.
Official results showed that the NPF’s share in parliament increased, with its candidates winning 172 seats, compared to 167 in the last parliament, whereas Independents diminished from 83 to 78 members. The rate of participation was 57% of voting card holders. A total of 30 women from all provinces, including Front candidates, won parliamentary seats. A notable result was the success of all six members of the independent "Al-Fayha'" list of big businessmen in Damascus (Damascus is represented by 29 deputies, 16 from the NDF and 13 Independents). Unlicensed opposition parties boycotted the elections, which were covered by 75 foreign journalists.
The most recent local Syrian elections took place on August 26 and 27, 2007. Law 91/1971 pertaining to electing local councils stipulates that every citizen 18 years of age or more is eligible to vote in local elections, except those who serve in the army or the police force. Around 8 million citizens hold voting cards. At stake were a total of 9687 council seats, distributed as follows: 1262 seats for governorate councils (14 governorates); 2942 seats for city councils (11 cities); 3133 seats for town councils and 2350 seats for village councils. A governorate council is composed of 30 - 100 members calculated on the basis of one representative for every 10,000 citizens. The executive bureau of the governorate might include between 6 and 10 members. There was a total of 32,058 candidates for the 9687 council seats. There were 11,545 voting centers, each of which was supervised by a committee of 3 persons. Most voting centers had two ballot boxes, one for electing governorate councils and the second for electing other councils.
The elections were conducted according to the “closed lists” of the “National Progressive Front” (an alliance of 10 political parties) that had been abandoned by the Baath Party leadership in the local elections of 2003. The “closed lists” system guarantees 50% of all municipal seats for the Front’s candidates with the biggest share allocated to the Baath party members. The other 50% is left to open or free competition among independent candidates. The “closed lists” determine in advance the names and number of candidates from each party in the National Progressive Front. The electoral campaign was delayed as candidates were awaiting the declaration of the Front’s closed lists. In general, the campaign was almost invisible. Unlicensed opposition parties boycotted the elections.
The Minister of Local Governance and Environment announced final election results. He said that the elections were orderly and smooth. The number of voters who practiced their voting right was 3.970,000, putting the participation rate at 49.54%.
The first category of citizens “A” which includes workers, peasants and artisans won 60% of local seats in governorate and city councils, leaving 40% of these seats to the second category “B” which includes all other social strata. At the level of town and village councils representatives of category “A” occupied 70% of seats leaving 30% to representatives of category “B”. Only 319 women won local councils’ seats thereby constituting 3.2% of local councils’ membership.
Four independent lists contested elections in Damascus. One outstanding outcome of elections was that "Al-Faiha List" of 6 businessmen who do not support the Baath regime won 6 seats in Damascus city municipal council.
Previous local elections in Syria were held in 2003. Voters elected candidates to 14 governorate councils, 95 city councils, 231 town councils, and 181 village councils. The electoral system divides elections into two categories: reserved seats for peasants, workers, and craftsman, and a residual category for all other peoples. Sixty percent of the seats at the governorate and city levels are reserved, while at the town and village level a full seventy percent used to be reserved. In 2003, however, an "Open Lists" electoral system was adopted for the towns and villages. The rate of participation in the provinces was 37% of eligible voters, 21% in cities, 34% in towns, and 33% in villages. Representatives of towns and villages constitute 11,500 members out of 15,000. The 2003 local elections experienced lower rates of participation than those of 1999, when voter turnout was 66 percent.
A presidential referendum was held in Syria on 17 May 2007. President Bashhar Al-Asad was the only candidate who ran for a second 7-year term. The number of eligible voters was 11.967 million, including the military and civilian prisoners who were not deprived by judicial rulings from the right to vote. The number of citizens who voted in the referendum was 11.1999 million, putting the participation rate at 95.86%. Official referendum results showed that 97.62% of the voters approved the renewal of Asad's term in office. Only 19,653 voters voted "No" to renewal, while 253.000 ballots were invalid. The Syrian constitution states that a presidential candidate must receive an absolute majority of cast votes. Unlicensed opposition parties called on Syrian citizens to boycott the referendum.