On May 22 and 23, 1990, Syrian voters were called to the polls to elect a new parliament, the fifth People’s Council (Majlis al-Sha‘b) since Hafiz al-Asad came to power in 1970. The new Majlis would consist of a total of 250 instead of the 195 members in previous councils. The official media made clear that President Asad had “granted” these additional seats to encourage independents to stand as candidates. The Baath Party and its allies in the six-party National Progressive Front (al-Jabha al-Wataniyya al-Taqaddumiyya), which held some 160 seats in the outgoing council, would content itself with about that number in the new assembly; roughly a third of all seats would be reserved for independent, non-party candidates.

Syria’s media celebrated this as a “step to support Syria’s democratic structure, to achieve increased popular participation in the administration of the country’s affairs.” [1] In fact, Asad had certainly realized the need to preempt calls for democracy, at the same time making clear that calls for a Syrian perestroika were out of place. Syria, said Asad in a speech to the outgoing Majlis in February 1990, had not been following other nations’ experiments in its own political course, referring to Eastern Europe. But if perestroika meant political plurality, flexibility and economic opening, then the “correction movement” — that is, Asad’s coup of 1970 — could in fact be called the first perestroika in the world.

Syria’s 1990 elections, while hardly “democratization,” might indicate a gradual remodeling of the political structure and the sociopolitical base that Asad relies on.

Voters could choose between the list of the National Progressive Front, and individual independent candidates. The Jabha was formed in 1972 as a united front of the dominant Baath Party and its smaller communist, Nasserist or Baathist splinter allies. [2] According to the Jabha charter, the Baath Party leads the front and holds an absolute majority in all its bodies, the Baath program and its conference resolutions provide the political line of the Jabha, and the Baath alone is allowed to operate among students and inside the armed forces. Syrians refer to the Baath Party’s allies — sometimes excluding the communists — as al-ahzab al-shakliyya, the formal parties. Outside the Jabha, only individuals, not parties, could run for Parliament. There was no competition among Jabha parties; they formed a joint list for each province and issued a common election manifesto.

It was made clear in advance that the Jabha would obtain a comfortable two-thirds majority in the new parliament. [3] The front’s lists were completely elected, giving about 137 seats to the Baath, 31 to its allies and 82 to independent candidates. [4] To secure these results, government employees had been taken to the polls collectively, and in general cast their votes in the open. The electoral system, which makes each of Syria’s 13 provinces one constituency, favored the Jabha: Independent candidates were often known in one village or town only. Most independent candidates who distributed their own ballot papers had put the Jabha list at the top, adding their own name below.

Many voters would take the ballot papers distributed by the Jabha and add the names of independent candidates in writing. Voters could cross out names from printed lists. This was the case with ‘Abd al-Qadir Qaddoura, the speaker of parliament and one of the members of the Syrian Baath Party’s Regional Command, who headed the Jabha list for Damascus but dropped to rank five among the candidates elected. With the bulk of ballot papers cast unaltered, crossing out a candidate had symbolic significance but it would hardly have any influence on the distribution of seats.

While voters had little choice as far as the Jabha list was concerned, they could choose from among some 9,000 independent candidates nationwide. We can distinguish four main groups of independent candidates: a large number of professionals and university teachers, mostly from known city families; businessmen of various calibers; traditional leaders; and people known from their public exposure, such as journalists and artists. Many candidates had decided of their own accord or had been encouraged by friends to run for a seat; others had been persuaded by government officials and even by the security forces. Of course, every candidate had to be approved by the authorities. Though several candidates had distinguished views and independent opinions, none of them represented any fundamental or antagonistic opposition to the regime.

In a three-week election campaign, walls and lampposts were covered with the candidates’ portraits and names. Only the wealthier businessmen, for the most part, ran loud and costly campaigns, organizing car rallies and inviting voters to banquets and receptions. “For 19 days,” said Ihsan Sanqar, an independent MP, “we opened the house of my parents and made it a madafa, a reception place. We had some 3,000-4,000 visitors a day, coming from different quarters or interest groups. But unlike others we did not serve up more than coffee and cake.”

With few exceptions, candidates did not present political slogans or programs. Candidates holding receptions would answer questions and give their audience a broad outline about their ideas, concentrating generally on the need for economic reform, modernization and the encouragement of free enterprise. One of the successful independent candidates distributed posters with his portrait and name; fine print identified the poster as a gift of the “fruit and vegetable merchants” or the “auto spare part dealers.” Other candidates presented themselves more or less successfully as members of the Chamber of Commerce executive, or as “the artisans’” or “the sportsmen’s” candidate. In newspaper advertisements some candidates presented as their program a list of rather vague or undisputed issues, such as tax reform, environmental protection or the need for “appropriate laws to encourage industry, commerce and agriculture.” Quite often such manifestos called for a deepening of democracy, duly crediting Hafiz al-Asad as the great leader who had put Syria on its “path to democracy.” In all of Damascus, only one candidate published a poster with controversial political demands, calling, for example, for a revision of Syria’s personal status law in favor of women. Issues such as defense, foreign relations or the Arab-Israeli conflict were not touched at all.

As the independent candidates posed no real oppositional threat, election rigging was apparently limited. Still, some manipulation occurred to support certain candidates the regime was anxious to see in Parliament, and to keep others out. One Damascene journalist, an independent communist of sorts, widely known for his critical comments in one of the national daily papers, stood for a seat with a clear platform on social issues and liberal demands. When the votes were counted, he was listed among those who had won. A few days later, however, the authorities announced that votes in Damascus had been recounted: The journalist was now among the losers. In Latakia, elections were held again after Jamil al-Asad, the president’s brother and the top candidate on the Jabha list for the province, received more votes than the number of voters who turned out.

Among the independents who won, three groups dominate: respected urban upper middle class elements, mostly lawyers, physicians and university teachers; traditional (including religious) leaders; and merchants and other members of Syria’s new commercial bourgeoisie. Among the 13 independents elected from Damascus, five are merchants, four of whom clearly represent the new — post-1970 — commercial class. Three of them, at least, are known for their alleged involvement in highly dubious, illegal or semi-legal business dealings. “There could,” says a high-ranking Syrian communist, “have been better representatives of Syria’s private sector than those actually elected.” Four deputies, either intellectuals or professionals, represent respected old Damascene families. In addition, there are an Islamic TV preacher; a Damascene landowner of Kurdish origin; a well-known actor who is also a member of the Druze community; and a quite popular former trade union leader who is now a director of a public-sector textile factory. There is also a Christian physician who, while standing officially as an independent, is known to represent the Lebanon-based Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party.

Damascus most reflects the ascendancy of new commercial class elements in Parliament. In other provinces, the weight shifts somewhat toward traditional elements. In Aleppo and Idlib, four religious sheikhs were elected, raising the number of liffat (turbans) from one in the old to five in the new Majlis. In rural areas, tribal leaders and representatives had considerable success. In the Dayr al-Zawr province, for example, three out of four independent seats were taken by members of the Baqqara tribe. In the Aleppo countryside, Diyab al-Mashi, a tribal sheikh who had been an MP in pre-Baathist times, was elected. In Homs province two tribal leaders entered the Majlis: Muhammad Fid’aus Ramadan and ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Tara al-Mulhim, whose relative Tamir had been representing their ‘ashira (clan) in different parliaments since 1946. In Suweida, ‘Abdallah “Pasha” al-Atrash, son of ‘Abd al-Ghaffar al-Atrash, a military leader of the Jabal Druze revolt of 1925, won a seat. ‘Abdallah al-Atrash has for some years been striving to impart the image of a tribal leader, or za‘im — wearing the traditional ‘abaya, reinstitutionalizing the madafa of his family in Suweida, and busily mediating both among the Suweida people themselves and between the local population and the authorities or the security forces. In several constituencies, relatives of high party and state officials were elected as “independents.”

Among the Jabha MPs, little has changed from previous parliaments. The Baath Party bloc, in its majority, resembles an assembly of party dignitaries: the heads of all important mass organizations; additional members of the Trade Union Federation and the Peasant Union executives; the prime minister; other members of the party’s regional and national commands; some provincial governors; and some artists and journalists. There are some intellectuals, such as Damascus University economics professor Ilyas Najma, who as a Baathist counterpart to some of the independent MPs might raise the intellectual level of Majlis debates.

Parliamentary work and discussions, however, remain limited. “Parliaments all over the world,” explains a Baathist MP, “have little influence on actual policymaking. They have a role to play and they have influence in budget matters, and that is how they influence politics. In Syria, however, the budget is completely exhausted, so there is virtually no margin left for political maneuver.” There are the red lines known to everyone, restricting controversial debates to explicitly “non-political” issues. Presidential prerogatives are primarily defense and foreign policy, but no one would expect a member of Parliament to raise issues such as confessional practices, the enrichment of the regime’s leading families or the misconduct of the security forces. “There are a lot of questions for the parliament to deal with which do not touch the red lines,” says an independent parliamentarian. “These are, among others, economic and social questions, tax policies or supply. To question the need for martial law still being in force, however, as the Communists did in the previous Majlis, would be precisely on the red line.”

Most independents will not try to test the margin of parliamentary control or criticism. “We do not regard ourselves as opposition,” independent MP Ihsan Sanqar said shortly after the elections. “Instead we are looking forward to cooperating with the government and finding a constructive dialogue.” “All of us,” ‘Abdallah al-Atrash says, “independents and Jabha members, stand behind Hafiz al-Asad, who is one of the historic leaders in the world. Democracy has been expanded with this year’s elections. And generally we have to see that Hafiz al-Asad’s corrective movement is a movement for democracy.” The Suweida za‘im is also convinced that a two-thirds majority for the Jabha is demanded by the Syrian constitution.

Although this is not the case, it is evident that Syria’s parliamentary reform and the elections of 1990 did not intend to develop the Majlis al-Sha‘b into a parliament which would regard itself as a counterweight to the executive. The concept of a separation of powers does not correspond with the regime’s political and ideological approach. Rather, the Syrian parliament in its present — as in its previous — composition resembles a majlis al-shura in the traditional Islamic sense. In terms of modern political science, it is a consultative, quasi-corporatist body.

Authoritarian or state corporatism tries to divide society into compulsory, non-competitive, functionally differentiated, hierarchic associations which are regarded as representative for their members and the membership of the respective functional group of society. The state may entrust them with certain executive powers over their membership. [5] A parliamentary body with limited powers may serve as a forum for representatives of the different functional groups to discuss their specific concerns on a national level. The corporatist idea is that society functions like an organic body whose members fulfill specific functional tasks under the leadership of a “brain.” It corresponds with the idea of a common public interest, values technocratic solutions, and dismisses both class struggle and liberal pluralism. It fits well with the Syrian regime’s view about how the state should be organized and how society should function.

Syria’s parliamentary reform can be understood as a corporatist strategy, to respond both to political demands for participation and to the technical demands of organizing an increasingly complex society. Corporatist elements have been introduced in the past, such as the “production councils” in public-sector industrial establishments where trade unionists, the party committee, the management and key workers are brought together, not to discuss industrial conflict but to cooperate in finding solutions for technical and administrative problems. [6] On a much higher level, the Committee for the Guidance of Import, Export and Consumption brings together the prime minister, the presidents of the Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the General Federation of Trade Unions, the head of the party bureau for economic affairs, and the cabinet ministers of economy, internal trade, industry and agriculture. It meets once a week and has assumed real importance as a decision-making body for economic affairs.

For the regime, the main function of the parliament is to represent different local and group interests — not to become a sovereign decision-making body. Neither parliamentary governments nor parliamentary careers are expected. Most Baathist MPs have important functions in the mass organizations, the party or the bureaucracy, and as such are appointed to Parliament rather than elected. Parliament is a place for MPs to build up and cultivate connections, to supply wasta (mediation) for their clientele and their constituency, and to draw attention to forgotten local problems. The Syrian parliament deals often with matters such as the traffic lights at a certain crossing in Damascus, an outlet for gas cylinders in Aleppo or the condition of bakeries in Qamishli. The amount of time parliament spends on these issues reflects both the extremely centralist structure of Syria’s bureaucracy and the parliamentarians’ role as wusata’ (mediators) whose direct access to government ministers is necessary to tackle local problems. A deputy who is close to the regime might be a more effective mediator than anyone with oppositional tendencies could be. The new independent MPs, especially the traditional and local leaders among them, will hardly differ from their Baathist colleagues in their approach to parliamentary work and to their own function as parliamentarians.

Nevertheless, the expansion of Syria’s Majlis and the inclusion of a considerable number of people from outside the party, the Jabha, the mass organizations and the bureaucracy is not irrelevant. The 1990 elections represent the desire of social groups hitherto not represented in the institutions of the Baathist state to make their voices heard from within the system. Those independent MPs who represent the commercial class will use Parliament as a forum to call for economic reform and liberalization, presenting themselves as the people who know how to run economic affairs, and probably — in the long run at least — claiming that private-sector representatives should also share political responsibility. The regime, for its part, evidently wants to incorporate these groups into the institutions of the state. With the public sector in bad shape, the regime has repeatedly urged growing private-sector contribution to Syria’s economy, and the private sector’s role in fact increased considerably during the 1980s. Allowing private-sector representatives into Parliament and giving them a limited say in policymaking reflects this increased importance.

The parliamentary expansion can also serve to diversify the regime’s base of support, which has been eroded by the effects of the austerity policies pursued since the mid-1980s. The incorporation into Parliament of both private-sector businessmen, independent intellectuals and traditional leaders might thus be a warning to some of those traditional components — the party, the unions and the bureaucracy — that the regime is ready to dispense with the critics in its own ranks. It may also indicate the development of a more formalized working relationship between the regime and the new commercial class, superseding what Ghassan Salame has described as a tacit agreement between such regimes and the commercial class, which stipulates that the bourgeoisie leaves “politics to its masters while the regime will secure the stability…needed for this bourgeoisie to enrich itself.” [7]


[1] See, for example, Muhammad Khayr al-Wadi in Tishrin, May 19, 1990.
[2] Today, in addition to the Baath, the Jabha consists of the Syrian Communist Party, which since 1986 has been split into two separate organizations led by Khalid Bakdash and Yusuf Faysal respectively; the Socialist Unionists, a 1961 breakaway party from the Baath; the Democratic Socialist Unionist Party, a breakaway group from the Socialist Unionists; the Movement of Arab Socialists, which represents one wing of the party founded by Akram Hawrani; the Nasserist Arab Socialist Union; and the Arab Democratic Party, a new proto-Baathist group. (There are now actually two parties calling themselves ASU: one inside the Jabha, led by Safwan al-Qudsi, and another, semi-illegal and oppositional, led by Jamal al-&lquo;Atasi.)
[3] See, for example, “Fursa akbar lil-mustaqillin fi al-intikhabat al-suriyya,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 20, 1990.
[4] In some cases I am not certain about the MP’s political affiliation. The names of all MPs were published in Tishrin, June 2, 1990, but without indicating to which group each belongs.
[5] On the concept of corporatism, see Ulrich von Alemann and Rolf G. Heinze, “Kooperativer Staat und Korporatismus,” in Ulrich von Alemann, ed., Neokorporatismus (Frankfurt and New York, 1981); and Phillippe C. Schmitter and Gerhard Lehmbruch, eds., Trends Toward Corporatist Intermediation (London, 1979).
[6] On trade union functions and participation, see Volker Perthes, Staat und Gesellschaft in Syrien, 1970-1989 (Hamburg: Schriften den Deutschen Orient-Instituts, 1990), pp. 187 ff.
[7] Ghassan Salame, al-Mujtama‘ wa al-Dawla fi al-Mashriq al-‘Arabi (Beirut, 1987), p. 206.

How to cite this article:

Volker Perthes "Syria’s Parliamentary Elections," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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