Samer Alahmad – Geiroon
“I was so happy to participate in the local council elections of the city of Saraqeb. It was a unique experience; although it wasn’t perfect, I felt for the first time the importance of elections, the value of democracy, and the ability of women to participate in decision making.” That’s what Em Ramez, a resident of the city of Saraqeb in the governorate of Idleb, north-western Syria, told Geiroon. Em Ramez was not the only woman engaged in this process, as tens of women have participated in the local elections held in Saraqeb in July 2017. After months of election day, this article aims to examine that process from various legal angles.
The electoral process in Saraqeb was exceptional in the way it was organized and well prepared, based on the Research and Management Organization (RMTEAM), which monitored the elections and wrote an evaluation report on the process. The organization stated “a list was prepared of the names of people who are eligible to vote and run for elections, electoral cards and ballot boxes were distributed around the city in a very organized way, elections were held by direct secret ballot, competition was between various political streams, and elections were held in the presence of media and monitoring organizations, under the supervision of an independent committee, and the protection of the local police, without any interference from military forces. In addition, a committee was assigned to receive any appeals.”
Muthana Almohammad, president of the local council in Saraqeb, explained to Geiroon how the electoral process was held saying “5 people ran for the presidency of the Saraqeb local council, of which two withdrew, leaving 3 competitors. As for the executive bureau, there were 17 running candidates, 8 of which have won seats on the bureau. The number of registered electoral cards was 4499 of both males and females; and participation reached around 54%. There were 8 electoral centers, of which two were only for women, noting that there were female monitors present at all ballot boxes.”
Almohammad added “the electoral process in Saraqeb was exceptional and successful in the election of a president and members for the local council by public direct ballot through secret ballot boxes. It was a civil experience resulting in the election of a local governing council that would manage and supervise all directorates as well as administrative and public service sectors.”
The organizations that have monitored the elections in Saraqeb have registered several procedural issues in the electoral system, including not registering the displaced people in the city, depriving them of their right to vote, as well as some gaps in the regulations concerning the electoral process. RMTEAM’s report stated “the regulations don’t describe the electoral system well enough; they are unclear about the number of votes for each elector when voting for the executive bureau.”
On the other hand, elections in Saraqeb have proven to be exceptional in several things, when compared to all other Syrian cities, especially the cities under the control of Syrian opposition, as indicated to Geiroon by Bassam Alquwatli, Director of RMTEAM. Alquwatli said “It was a pioneering experience from allowing everyone to run for elections to everyone’s participation in voting; however, not all areas have a safe environment for voting, as some military forces are still trying to take control of places, in which case elections would usually be only nominal. The process went very well, but can be improved, especially in terms of developing the electoral system and increasing women participation.”
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Saraqeb’s experience was not one of a kind in terms of direct local elections, as various Syrian cities have held such elections after falling out of the control of the Syrian regime since 2011 until this day. The most recent experience was that of the city of Douma in rural Damascus, which witnessed direct elections in October 2017, resulting in the victory of 14 women for the membership of the council’s general assembly, of a total of 155 members. The city of Saqba in rural Damascus also witnessed similar elections in July 2017, according to a video report published by Geiroon Syrian media network. (https://geiroon.net/archives/90047).
Local councils in Syria were established after the start of the 2011 protests against the Assad regime and the end of the regime’s control over several cities and villages. The councils represented an alternative to the absence of civil government, and were controlled by the residents of those cities. A ministry for local administration was also created by the interim government associated with the national coalition for Syrian opposition, whereas the ministry was assigned to supervise the local council elections in a number of Syrian governorates. Last week, the ministry announced its preparations for the elections of the council of the Daraa governorate, southern Syria.
Syrians have not practiced in any transparent democratic electoral process under the authority of the Assad family. Em Ramez said “I hope this democratic experience takes place all over Syria, so that all Syrians are able to experience democracy.” However, these experiences did not live for long, as residents of Saqba were all forced out of their city after the attacks that have recently been carried out by the Syrian regime with the support of Russia against Eastern Ghouta, while the city of Douma is facing a severe blockade and is also at risk of having all its residents displaced. As for Saraqeb, its activists and its local council are suffering a long lasting struggle against the extremist Tahrir Al Sham brigade, which considers any democratic process a violation to its principles, forcing Em Ramez and many of her fellow Syrians to wait for the suitable time to have another opportunity to choose their representatives through democratic elections in Syria.
This human rights article was published with the support of the Canadian organization Journalists for Human Rights, and the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDF).