The global media headlined on June 3 a political exercise conducted in Assad regime-controlled areas of Syria. Most reports described it as Syrian presidential elections with three candidates and a likely winner, the incumbent Bashar al-Assad. The exercise was illustrated with endless photos even videos of Syrians, described as voters, appearing to caste a vote. Coverage was far from flattering but plenty of coverage there was.
So, was this news? A pretty cast iron case could be made that the media should have ignored the regime’s games and concentrated on the genuine news story that is the conflict, the bombings and humanitarian disaster. The barrel bombs and bullets are real whilst the ballots are not. It is more than a sneaking suspicion that even the most reputable of journalists succumbed to the offer of a regime visa.
It was not just the media. Western political leaders opposed to Assad, even whilst tagging it as a sham or parody of democracy, used similar language. One wonders why American and French ministers interrupted their busy schedules to comment.
Yet given that it was not ignored, just how should the media have covered it? How should politicians outside Syria react?
Don’t buy it
To start with, do not buy into the regime’s framing of these events.
Fixed elections are not elections at all. Votes that do not count are not votes. National elections that take place only in areas under the control of one party to a conflict are not national. How can one be a “candidate,” “opponent” or a “competitor” in a race that is already decided? The other two faces, on what was described as a ballot paper, seemed more than content that Assad was, how should we say, reaffirmed as president. In this particular drama, the two others were no more than bridesmaids trailing behind a naked Emperor.
Fixed elections are not elections at all. Votes that do not count are not votesChris Doyle
To list all the glaring discrepancies and violations would be to give the whole charade more credibility than it could ever deserve. Suffice it to say that the observers from Russia and Zimbabwe would not have been shocked even if the North Korean delegation might have felt it was all a little bit liberal.
The problem is to use the term “elections” on such occasions inevitably skews coverage, suggesting even the possibility of a legitimate exercise. Putting forth “both sides of the story,” juxtaposing regime and opposition views about whether these were “elections,” as some media outfits do, entertains a debate that should not be had. It is not a challenge unique to Syria.
Desperately seeking a new word
The English dictionary is desperately seeking a new word (all ideas welcome!) to describe these 90 percent plus rubber stamp affairs. Even what happened in North Korea where one man got 100 percent of the vote with 100 percent turnout was still referred to in the media as an election, albeit often bookended by inverted commas. There needs to be one word that acquires widespread acceptance in the mainstream media. Coronation is too positive a term. Perhaps a respected institution could devise precise yardsticks by which a political event attains the gold standard of an election or referendum.
Does it matter? It should not, but regimes have co-opted for their own ends the democratic lexicon of elections, votes and candidates. Everyone knows that Russia, China and Iran will all tout Assad as the democratically elected legitimate Syrian leader, who therefore cannot be expected to stand down or even share power. The oft-repeated narrative is this will somehow strengthen the regime. One wonders how? Bashar al-Assad will be as illegitimate a president on June 4 as he was on June 2.
In fairness, the distorted importance of June 3 was propagated by none other than the outgoing U.N.-Arab League Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. He argued in March of this year that elections in Syria would undermine peace talks and were “incompatible with the Geneva process.” Well, only if you accept they are elections. Brahimi and international leaders should have stressed that, even if Assad had orchestrated a hundred such “elections,” it changes nothing. It would not dilute the collective demand of the international community, including Russia, for a “transitional government body with full executive powers,” a demand that two years ago the regime agreed to. A sane response of those who backed the Geneva communiqué would be to reaffirm that nothing has changed to negate its relevance as the agreed international basis for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
The games of June 3 were a continuation of the conflict by other means. Assad did not engage in this merry-go-round for fun. It was designed as a show of strength, a display of confidence to intimidate those who oppose him inside and outside Syria. Assad treats Syrians as sheep that he can herd into booths at his whim no matter how farcical the circumstances. This herding operation, described as turnout, augments his loyal support base by bussing people to “polling locations” and punishing non-participation. Assad wants to show the invited media that he can get a large turnout even after a record of 160,000 killed, the destruction of most of the country and displacement of a third of its population.
All the political and media attention has only aided and abetted this process. If regimes knew such practices would be ignored, would they expend quite so much energy in arranging them?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.