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Syria’s constitutional referendum—‘quite laughable’ or ‘better late than never’?



On Sunday 26 February 2012 Syria conducted a referendum on a new constitution. An amended constitution is one of the concessions promised by the Syrian Government in response to long-running unrest. Votes are currently being counted, and results should be released in coming days. This post briefly discusses the proposed changes to the constitution, as well as domestic and international reactions to the referendum.

The 1973 Constitution establishes Syria as a ‘democratic, popular, socialist, and sovereign state’ (Article 1), and, perhaps most controversially, names the Socialist Arab Renaissance Party (the Ba‘ath Party) as ‘the leading party in the society and in the state’ (Article 8).

The draft revised Constitution, released prior to the 26 February referendum, seeks to make some significant changes to the 1973 Constitution:
  • firstly, Article 8 no longer names the Ba‘ath party. Article 8 in the new constitution states that Syria’s political system is to be based on ‘political pluralism’, with ‘licensed political parties and constituencies participating in ‘national political life’. This would nominally deliver on the Syrian Government’s promise, first made on 27 March 2011, to legalise political parties other than the Ba‘ath Party. However, Article 8 of the prospective new constitution forbids political parties to be formed on ‘religious, sectarian, tribal, regional, or professional basis’. It appears, therefore, that the Muslim Brotherhood (a Sunni Islamist party), would not be legalised. Kurdish parties advocating autonomy or Kurdish rights would also seemingly be prohibited.
  • secondly, all specific references to ‘socialism’ have been removed, as have the many references to the Ba’ath Party’s ideological trinity of ‘unity, freedom, and socialism’.
  • thirdly, the prospective constitution restricts an ‘elected’ president to two seven-year terms (Article 88), while in the old constitution, which called for seven-year terms, did not restrict the number of terms a president could serve.

Concerns with the draft constitution

Many of the issues raised concerning the draft constitution concern the enduring power of the President and some apparent contradictions or ambiguities in the draft.

Fares Chamseddine, for example, highlights that while Article 55 of the draft Constitution states that ‘legislative authority of the state shall be assumed by the People’s Assembly in accordance with the manner prescribed in the Constitution’, Article 111 states that ‘the President may decide to dissolve the People's Assembly’.

Similarly, Sami Moubayed, a Syrian journalist writing for Gulf News, cites Article 113 of the draft constitution, which gives the President ‘the authority to issue legislation outside of the People's Assembly meetings if necessary, in the event of dissolution of the People's Assembly’. Moubayed feels this gives too much power to the President.

Article 117 of the draft constitution states that  
The President cannot be held responsible for actions pertaining directly to his duties, except in the case of high treason. A request for his indictment requires a proposal of at least one-third of the members of the People's Assembly and an Assembly decision adopted by a two-thirds majority in an open vote at a special secret session. His trial takes place only before the Supreme Constitutional Court.
However, Chamseddine points out that while Article 140 states that the Supreme Constitutional Court is an ‘independent judicial body’, its membership includes the President, and the other members are all ‘appointed by the President of the Republic by decree’ (Article 141). The articles on the Supreme Constitutional Court are basically unchanged from the 1973 Constitution.

As stated above, the draft constitution, under Article 88, limits an individual president to two seven-year terms in office. However, Article 155 of the draft states specifically that the ‘provisions of Article 88 of this Constitution apply to [the current President] as of the next presidential elections’. The current term of President Bashar al-Assad ends in 2014, meaning that under a revised constitution he could remain president until 2028—a total of 28 years in power.

Finally, concerns have also been raised as to the effectiveness of a constitutional referendum being conducted while the armed forces continue to clash with rebels in many areas of the country, and while serious fighting is occurring, for example, in the city of Homs.

Domestic reactions 

Many elements of the disparate Syrian opposition criticised the proposed constitution and called for a boycott of the referendum (for information on the various opposition groups in Syria, see here and here). On the day the constitutional referendum was announced, Anas al-Abda of the Syrian National Council told ABC Radio:
Introducing a new constitution while targeting civilians on a daily basis and killing tens and imprisoning hundreds and injuring thousands of people is ludicrous, to say the least.
we need to know that the problem in Syria is not the constitution. It’s not a constitution problem. The constitution was never a problem. It – because simply it was never respected in the first place, even the existing one. The existing constitution, by the way, enshrines within it the freedom of expression, freedom for speech, the right to demonstrate and all of that.
But it’s never been respected. And I don’t think proposing a new constitution would make any difference at all.
Similarly, the opposition Local Coordination Committees (LCC) issued a statement calling for a boycott of the referendum, arguing that the draft constitution ‘offers no substantive amendments’ and is ‘nothing more than an attempt by the regime to cast itself in a different light’.

The Syrian Government, through its official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), commended the conduct of the referendum, and claimed that ‘citizens’ had praised the proposed constitution.

International reactions

On the day the Syrian Government announced the constitutional referendum, the US President’s Press Secretary labelled the referendum ‘laughable’, and a US State Department spokesman stated that the referendum process was just President Assad ‘putting forward a piece of paper that he controls, to a vote that he controls, in an effort to try to maintain control’.

As the referendum was being conducted on 26 February, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton described the referendum at a ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting in Tunisia as ‘phony’ and ‘a cynical ploy’ by President Assad ‘to justify what he’s doing to other Syrian citizens’.

At the same meeting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said of the referendum:  
Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition.
Russia and China, meanwhile, have offered guarded support for the proposed referendum and the parliamentary elections that are to follow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomed the announcement of the referendum, arguing that ‘a new constitution to end one-party rule in Syria is a step forward ... It is coming late unfortunately, but better late than never’.

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun, following a recent trip to Syria, expressed hope
that the referendum on a new constitution, as well as the forthcoming parliamentary elections [will] pass off calmly ... China supports the path of reform taking place in Syria and the important steps that have been taken in this respect.
The Australian Government has not made any public comments about the referendum in Syria. Australia has, however, since at least 19 August 2011 consistently called for President Bashar al-Assad to be removed from power or to step down. For more information on the Australian Government’s position on the situation in Syria see the Ministerial Statement delivered by former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd in the House of Representatives on 7 February 2012.

If the referendum approves the changes to the constitution, parliamentary elections are to be held within 90 days.
Tags: Middle East