The Syrian government adopted a new parties law in July. But will it bring real political change?
By Dalia Haidar & Rasha Faek
When the investigative journalist Rama Najmeh decided to look into the status of Syria’s political parties in 2004, the government was preparing a new parties law that was supposed to open up the country for political participation and activism and engage more youths in political life. The new law was supposed end 40 years of Ba’ath party domination. But seven years on, the same conversation is happening again.
“Seven years ago we talked about allowing for political participation,” Najmeh said. “It is sad that, just now, the government is talking about this issue again because of certain circumstances – not because of political awareness of its importance. They are presenting it as a solution rather than a base.”
After almost five months of unrest, the Syrian government on July 20 ratified a draft of a new parties law. It intends to pave the way for ending Ba’ath party rule in Syria – in place since 1963 – and to open the door for opposition parties. During the past seven years, the Syrian government has focused on its foreign policy and domestic economic objectives with few changes made on the political front.
Despite some positive reactions to the law, it remains unclear whether this step will move Syria toward becoming a more democratic country. The political system remains stagnant and the opposition continues to boycott the political process. Many analysts and opposition figures argue that, after 40 years of political paralysis, much more needs to be done.
New party, old blood
Until now, only parties belonging to the Ba’ath party-led National Progressive Front (NPF) can operate openly in Syria. The late President Hafez al-Assad established the coalition in 1972 and the ruling Ba’ath party today holds 134 of the 250 seats in the Syrian parliament while the NPF holds two thirds of the whole.
The NPF includes the Socialist Unionist Democratic party, the Syrian Arab Socialist Union, two branches of the Syrian Communist party, the Unionist Socialist party and the Syrian Social Nationalist party, which joined the coalition in 2005 as the first non-socialist, non-Arab nationalist party admitted to the NPF. Outside the NPF, there are some 25 parties that are not legally recognised but somewhat tolerated. They are considered opposition-oriented but are weak and reluctant to challenge the government.
The new law would give parties an opportunity to form as long as they are not based on religious or ethnic backgrounds. A so-called Party Affairs Committee will be established and chaired by the Minister of the Interior to review parties’ applications. Anyone who wants to establish a political party will have to apply for a licence along with 50 founding members older than 25. They must be residents of Syria and come from at least 50 percent of Syria’s governorates. Any party needs 2,000 members at the time of applying along with facilities for its headquarters.
The committee must approve or deny any application within a seven-day period. If an application is rejected, founders can complain to the court within 15 days, and re-apply. Most importantly, the new law will apply to all parties, even those already in operation, including the Ba’ath. It too must be licenced according to the new laws and regulations.
Many analysts said they anticipate the new process will establish a political scene in Syria that has not existed for four decades.
“Syria did not have a political life before the crisis,” said one journalist and political analyst who wanted to remain anonymous. “During the last 40 years, there were only two tracks: either joining the NPF and having a Mercedes car or be exiled and oppressed.”
The local journalist was referring to corruption that NPF parties enjoy under the umbrella of the Ba’ath party, while all members of dissident parties, prohibited from obtaining party licences, are subject to repression, restrictions and arrests. For Najmeh, even the licensed parties failed to leave a mark on political life.
“Many of the parties did not have a role in political life anyway both inside and outside the NPF,” Najmeh said. “Most parties had concrete ideologies but lacked political performance. None of them had experience of political activism; those outside the NPF were working secretly while NPF parties were just a decoration.”
Najmeh believes that if the new laws are enacted the most important challenge for all parties will be attracting fresh blood into their popular bases. Most of the parties’ leaders , both in the NPF and the opposition, she says, are “historical leaders” who have headed their parties for decades. This means they lack the democratic political environment even within their own parties.
There is also resistance from the Ba’ath party to the planned changes. Recent statements by party officials reflect a split within the party over the new law, which would automatically lead to canceling Article 8 in the Syrian constitution, which makes the Ba’ath party the leader of the state and society.
The road ahead
It remains unclear whether a change in the way opposition parties operate will give them more prominence in the country’s shifting political landscape. The unrest and subsequent changes since mid-March stem from people on the street – not from the actions of political parties.
This highlights the gap between ordinary people calling for freedom and the political parties that have opposed the government for decades. But opposition figure Hasan Abdulazim, head of the Democratic Socialist Union, said he believes that the new parties law will change this, improving the relationship between political parties and people on the street.
“Both opposition national progressive parties and liberal parties had a wide popular base since the seventies, but they were subject to arrests – since the eighties- which limited their support,” he said. “I believe that the current uprising which adopted the opposition’s demands, has given the opposition popularity and influence.”
In June, Abdulazim announced the establishment of the Coordination Corporation of Democratic Change Forces, which includes previous signatories of the Damascus Declaration – which called for democratic change in 2005 – and other opposition groups including banned Kurdish parties. Abduazim’s coalition is considered one of the widest unlicensed political alliances among the opposition.
“We would enter elections only when democratic change is achieved, and a democratic civil state is founded with a democratic elections law,” Abdulazim said.
This means that, in the current political situation, no one in the national democratic coalition, or even the prominent opposition figures, would participate in the coming elections. They were supposed to take place in early August but are unlikely to happen amid the current political crisis. Moreover, several Syrian websites quoted the independent parliamentarian Mohammad Habash saying that he does not expect elections to take place before both elections and parties laws are approved by the government.
Even when a date for elections is decided, there will be those working to prevent them from being successful.
“We will use all peaceful means to prevent the legislative elections or anything that would give continuance to this regime,” said Louay Housein, a leading opposition figure and a member at the Democratic National Coalition. “There is no point of any parliamentary elections without allowing political freedom and empowering laws rather than the secret police.”
Protesters are also wary of forming a party and supporting the political process until a new parties law goes into effect and officials show they plan to uphold it. While it is difficult to approach protest committees in person, many express their stances and demands on Facebook and on the streets.
Nabd (Pulse) is one of these groups. It too has said it will not attempt to form an official party.
“We are here now to unite our visions and work peacefully hand-in-hand to have new political life in Syria that respects values of freedom, pluralism and democracy fitting Syrian youths’ aspirations and who need freedom and dignity,” a spokesman for the group of about 400 members, said.
With the expected widespread boycott of the upcoming elections in Syria, the current regime is likely to benefit most from the new law amid the current crisis.
“I think that all opposition forces have agreed on boycotting any elections amid the current situation which still gives dominance to the authorities,” Abdulazim said. “Any participation would enhance the current situation – [something] the people calling for democratic change do not want.”
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