By Jorg Michael Dostal
Since the outbreak of internal unrest in Syria in March 2011, many facets of the Syrian crisis have been analyzed, and many opinions offered on how to deal with the ongoing situation. What has been underreported in the international media is Syria¡¯s domestic efforts to reform the political system from within.
A case in point is the draft of a new Syrian constitution that was commissioned by the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in October 2011 and presented to the Syrian and international public on Feb. 15, 2012. The constitution is now due to be put to a Syrian popular referendum on Feb. 26, 2012 -- at least in those parts of the country in which the government exercises sufficient control to run the referendum.
On the international plane, the draft Syrian Constitution has been called ``laughable¡± by a White House spokesman while Russia and China have expressed support for Syria¡¯s political reform efforts. However, the actual content of the new constitution has so far not been analyzed in detail. This article aims to fill the gap in reporting.
To begin with, the new constitution is expected to replace the current one dating from 1973. The 1973 constitution was written in a Cold War setting, in which Syria was an ally of the Soviet Union. It provided a monopoly of political power for the Arab Social Baath Party as the ``leading party in the society and the state¡± (Article 8 of the 1973 constitution). The old constitution stated that the Baath Party had the right to put forward a single candidate for president.
Most importantly, the Syrian president¡¯s dominance of the country¡¯s political system was practically unlimited as he also acted as chairman of the Baath Party. Once ``voted¡± into office for a term of seven years (a term in office copied from the 1958 French Constitution of General Charles de Gaulle), the president of Syria exercised the right to appoint the prime minister and Cabinet.
The Syrian parliament, the People¡¯s Assembly, was mostly limited to the role of sounding board for the prime minister. Thus, the Syrian president could stay out of the frame of day-to-day governance and focus on foreign policy, while still exercising complete control of the government¡¯s domestic agenda whenever it suited him.
The text of the new Syrian Constitution, as recently published on the website of the state-run SANA news agency, drops all references to the Baath Party and socialism. The new article 8 in the 2012 constitution states that ``The political system of the state shall be based on the principle of political pluralism, and exercising power democratically through the ballot box.¡±
This basic shift towards political pluralism repeats in other provisions of the new constitution which provide for freedom of expression (a freedom that the old constitution only granted to ``constructive criticism¡±); freedom of the press; right of assembly and strike; and right to form associations and unions (a freedom only granted to ``popular sectors¡± in the old constitution). Another important change in the new constitution concerns Syria¡¯s commitment to the rule of law, outlining the basic rights of citizens in the legal system and explicitly outlawing torture (articles 50 to 54).
If the new constitution commits Syria towards a more pluralistic democratic system, where is the catch? Certainly, the new constitution includes many democratic provisions. However, it is not fully democratic and there are at least two main problems.
Firstly, article 8 of the new constitution states that the forming of new parties ¡°on the basis of religion, sectarian, tribal, regional, class-based, [or] professional basis¡± is illegal. This restriction arises from fears that extremists could mobilize along religious and sectarian lines against the current secular government. Indeed, a fully free party system could potentially threaten Syria¡¯s religious and ethnic minorities such as Alawis, Christians, and Druze with the imposition of a sectarian fundamentalist regime. On the other hand, these new constitutional rules could certainly be abused by the current government against legitimate opposition parties too.
Secondly, the new Syrian Constitution still provides an exceptionally powerful role of the president as opposed to other political institutions. In the past, the president was allowed to stay in office for an unlimited number of terms. The new constitution introduces a limit of two seven-year terms. However, this time limit only applies for the future and would potentially allow Bashar al-Assad to be a candidate in the next presidential election in 2014 and the one after the next in 2021.
Moreover, Article 85 of the new constitution requires future presidential candidates to receive the written support of at least 35 members of parliament (out of 250) to gain approved candidate status in 2014. Since no member of parliament (due to be newly elected 90 days after the constitutional referendum on Feb. 26) is allowed to support more than one candidate, this will work to limit the number of presidential candidates in 2014. In an interesting twist, the constitution also demands that there be at least two candidates in any future presidential election.
Ultimately, the new constitution does not point to the immediate withdrawal from power of President al-Assad. Yet it does open the door towards limited pluralism in the Syrian political system and would allow opposition candidates to gain access to parliament. The constitution would also allow for presidential elections with more than one candidate in 2014. The alternative to Syria¡¯s domestic reform of the political system appears to be civil war -- as happened in neighboring Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s and in neighboring Iraq after 2003.
Much of what is reported in the media suggests that further deterioration of the Syrian crisis is inevitable. Yet politics is an open-ended affair and democracy will not come to Syria in a single step. The Syrian government and opposition must talk to each other and the new Syrian Constitution, while not ideal, is a step in the right direction. The alternative of an ongoing escalation of the crisis is much worse. Those who care about Syria must wish for a peaceful compromise.
The author is an assistant professor teaching comparative politics in the Graduate School of Public Administration, Seoul National University.