On September 16th Syria held its first local elections in government-controlled areas since anti-government protests and protracted civil conflict broke out in 2011. Polling booths were open from 7 am to midnight, having been extended five hours to accommodate the throngs who wished to participate.
Though the EU, US, and Gulf Cooperation Council dismissed the election as illegitimate, it is meant to signal to the world that the country is on the path to recovery. And that its people are actively involved. There were televised events showing voters casting ballots in Damascus, Tartus, and Latakia. Surprisingly, elections were also held in Deir ez-Zor, a city recently recaptured by Syrian troops. Deir ez-Zor had been occupied by the Islamic State for years. Within a year the city was able to drive ISIS out, regroup, and function well enough to host elections.
Four years ago, when the country was in its most violent convulsions, an election would have been unthinkable.
There has been speculation that the election serves the sitting regime’s purposes. That it helps unite citizens against ISIL and it alerts terror groups that the ruling party has regained control. Four years ago, when the country was in its most violent convulsions, this was unthinkable. Roads were impassable, and people were afraid to leave their houses. Thus, for some, the act of casting a ballot is a message to ISIL and other terrorists that the people have taken their control back.
More than 5 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced people will not be able to vote. Syrian law prohibits voters from casting ballots outside of their municipality. However, given the progress in Deir ez-Zor, Syrians hope the entire country can be free of violence and people can return home and cast their votes with time. The election has encouraged people. Perhaps the seemingly interminable chaos can end. And perhaps Syrians can vote for leaders to rebuild their country. In addition to demonstrating to the terrorists that they have no place in Syria, the election is a way for the regime to rebuild hope with a people who have lost it over seven years of conflict.
More than 5 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced people will not be able to vote
While the election represents a bit of progress, state oppression remains a reality for most Syrians. Some see the vote as a ploy by the regime to demonstrate its power. Not an opportunity for the people to use their voices. Such people argue that election results are predetermined. To be sure, Syria is a long way from open elections. Ones where candidates and parties truly represent the people’s will. But ISIL will be excluded from elections, and we can all say good riddance.