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SYRIAN OPPOSITION GOT IT WRONG
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
April 25, 2007

Which is the Arab country where "Americans" represent a majority of those eligible to vote? The answer is: Syria. "American" is the label that a Syrian Cabinet minister has attached to those who decided to stay away from last weekend's general election.

"There is no difference between our opponents and the Americans who do not favour our nation's prog-ress," Buthaina Shaaban, a cabinet minister spokesperson told reporters in Damascus.

According to estimates by nonpartisan observers, the general election attracted just one voter out of three. This means that some 65 per cent of Syrian eligible to vote could be described as "American" according to Shaaban's definition.

AFP reported that the number of supervisors at many polling stations in Damascus was higher than that of voters. A Reuters' correspondent, touring seven polling stations, spotted only a handful of voters.

The election to choose a new 250-seat People's Assembly (parliament) had been billed as a major move by President Bashar Al Assad's government to strengthen its legitimacy ahead of an impending showdown with the United Nations over the murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri.

The idea was that the general election would broaden the popular base of the regime by offering a share of power to figures from civil society.

This was the first time since 1970, when Hafez Al Assad seized power in a coup d'etat, that the National Progressive Front, fig leaf for the ruling Baath Party, was not contesting all the 250 seats.

In the event, only a handful of businessmen agreed to stand as independent candidates, with even fewer likely to secure seats. Although opposition parties have claimed credit for the massive boycott of the polls, the reasons voters stayed away may lie elsewhere.

One reason may be a general feeling that the present system has reached an impasse that cannot be breached through peaceful electoral means.

A series of violent clashes between dissidents and security forces in various parts of Syria, plus a coupe of dramatic suicide operations in the capital, indicate the first cracks in what has been an efficient police state for almost half a century.

Another reason for the massive boycott may be the intellectual laziness and political ineptitude of much of the anti-Assad opposition. Unable to put their acts together and come up with a common program and a joint list of candidates, the main opposition parties decided to opt for the easy option of a blanket boycott.

The opposition's argument is that, under regimes such as the one in Syria, no election can be free. This is certainly true. However, this does not mean that boycotting even fraudulent elections is always the best option. Often, a bad election is better than no election at all, if only because it represents a compliment that vice pays to virtue.

Working on a common programme and a joint list of candidates would have forced the splintered Syrian opposition to set is perennial differences aside to offer a credible alternative to the ruling establishment.

Because of the continued bloodshed in Iraq, many Syrians are wary of regime change through outside intervention or internal armed struggle. Not surprisingly, the ruling elite is trying to persuade the Syrians that sticking with the devil they know is safer than courting one they don't.

By allowing the ruling elite to go unchallenged in the general election, the opposition confirms the fears , fomented by the regime, that its foes have nothing to offer but foreign intervention and/or armed action.

Unlimited power

To be sure, elections held under a state of emergency that gives the security forces unlimited power is a dicey affair at best. It is also true that the government's monopolistic control of the media favours the Baath Party candidates.

There is also no doubt that the government is willing and able to use massive fraud to alter the election results in its own favour.

And, yet, the boycott decision was ill advised.

The opposition's active presence in the general election would have been a more effective means of promoting reform and change. Participation would have given a strong signal that the opposition is prepared to go out of its way to promote peaceful change.

Also, it would have forced the many different opposition groups and parties to achieve a minimum consensus on key aspects of policy. More importantly, perhaps, the opposition's presence might have persuaded some elements within the ruling elite that a peaceful change is possible and that they, to, may find a home in a new post-Baath system.

There is little doubt that Syria is heading for troubled waters. The United Nations is preparing to charge a number of Syrian officials, including some very senior figures, with complicity in the Hariri case.

A special international tribunal, based at The Hague, is certain to follow. That could put Syria on the same disastrous path that Serbia was led into under Slobodan Milosevic.

At the same time, the Islamic Republic in Tehran is exploiting Bashar Al Assad's diplomatic isolation as an opportunity for extending and strengthening the Khomeinist network of influence throughout Syria. Since the Islamic Republic does not want allies but agents, an isolated Syria may soon see what is left of its independence vanish forever.

Syria has no interest in becoming part of the glacis for the Islamic Republic in a military showdown with the US. More than ever before Syria needs an active and united opposition to extend a hand of alliance to elements within the ruling establishment who fear the consequences of the regime's current policy of defiance against the UN and alliance with the mullahs.

Contrary to Shaaban's claim, the majority of Syrians are not "Americans". It is precisely because they do not wish to see their country invaded that they decided to stay away from the polls, indicating disapproval of policies that can only lead to disaster.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe and is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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