There is plenty of talk in Syria about an upcoming law that allows for political pluralism, expected before parliamentary elections next summer.
For obvious reasons, this has created a buzz in Syrian society, which for 48 years has been ruled by the Baath Party, preaching ‘Unity, Freedom and Socialism.’ The Baathists, however, who make up approximately 1.2 million, are a minority among Syria’s 22 million people. For years, joining the party was a condition for any career mobility in government.
In addition to the presidency, the Baath controlled strategic posts like that of Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament, besides the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Interior and Information.
The Regional Command of the Baath Party is the highest political body in Syria, responsible for strategic decision-making when it comes to education, economy, religion and politics. For years, outspoken voices have been heard calling for political pluralism and doing away with one-party rule.
Lobby groups demanded that the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition of socialist parties that is headed by the Baath, be either revamped or dissolved altogether. The NPF, created in the early 1970s, includes an assortment of leftist parties that have a very limited power base in Syria and yet get a certain quota of seats in Parliament and any Syrian cabinet. Its leaders are old and ailing — and so are their ideologies, certainly unfit for a rising generation of Syrians with ambition. The only parties in the NPF that have any popularity are the Syrian Communist Party (SCP) and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), both of which, along with the Baath, date back to the 1930s and 1940s.
Recent events in Syria have created a new mood, where authorities have promised that a political party law will go into effect. After a meeting with President Bashar Al Assad, Syria’s top cleric Mohammad Saeed Ramadan Al Butti said that the era of one-party rule will come to an end once the new law comes into effect.
Reforms on backburner
Once it does, the pre-set quota of the Baath in both government and parliament will automatically come to an end. And so will Article 8 of the Constitution, which designates the Baath as the “ruling party of state and society.”
The idea, of course, is not new, having surfaced at different junctures over the past four decades, most recently in the summer of 2005 when the Baath Party promised to pass a law allowing for political pluralism.
Although a draft was indeed prepared, that law never saw the light of day because of the many challenges Syria faced as a result of a stand-off with the Bush administration, which forced Damascus to put political reforms on the backburner.
According to the draft law, which is being re-visited today, a party founder needs to be a Syrian citizen aged 35 and above, who has no criminal record. It doesn’t specify a certain level of education that he/she should have in order to establish a political party.
He/she has to apply for a licence after obtaining the signature of 30 party members, no younger than 25. They should represent “at least” 10 Syrian governorates, and none of them should hold dual nationality.
By law, they will be authorised to establish their own political publications, to recruit members, stage rallies, and attend conferences, both regionally and internationally. Their headquarters, correspondences, and telephone calls will be immune to security meddling, “unless specified by a court warrant”.
They will be able to create alliances for election purposes with other parties, permitted to establish their own youth branches, and lobby for members both at home and among expatriate Syrians. Party membership will remain off-limits to judges, policemen, security officials, and soldiers.
Parties will be prohibited from using churches and mosques to market their programmes. They cannot accept grants from any non-Syrian organisation, or Syrians in the diaspora.
A firm conviction in the upper echelons of power is that parties with an ethnic or religious agenda — whether moderate or radical Islam — will never be tolerated in Syria.
It is yet to be seen if these new laws will apply to the NPF parties, meaning, will they apply for a licence from scratch, or will they continue to operate regardless of the new law? The party law needs to go hand-in-hand with a new election law, specifying what will happen if a particular party wins a majority in elections.
Will it take the chamber? And if this is the case, what will be the status of the Baath party within Parliament if it no longer commands a majority? And if a party wins a majority, be it slim or absolute, will it get to name the prime minister?
What kind of political parties will young Syrians create building on a reputation of their grandfathers who enjoyed a multiparty system in the 1940s and 1950s? The parties of that era, however, are impossible to resurrect.
Their founders are long dead and it would be madness to build upon past glories, without adding modernity that copes with the times, and rapidly changing ideologies.
This article appeared in Gulf News on April 12, 2011 entitled, “Putting an end to One-Party Rule in Syria.”