Syria’s ‘democracy’ charter hits regime roadblocks

Sunday 19/06/2016
Hadiya Abbas (2nd R), first woman to be elected parliament speaker, at Syrian parliament

BEIRUT - A draft of a new constitu­tion for Syria has been drawn up by the Rus­sians, much to the dis­pleasure of Damascus, and is due to see the light of day in August. The preliminary date was pencilled in by US Secretary of State John Kerry after receiving a copy of the new charter.
Syrian officials strongly objected to several major clauses of what many view as a “Russian-authored constitution” and insisted it would never pass unless voted upon by the Syrian people.
If it is enacted, the new constitu­tion would be Syria’s seventh since Ottoman rule ended in 1918. The first was a royalist one for the Syrian kingdom (1918-20) and the most re­cent was adopted in 2012, 11 months after the start of the Syria war.
The new constitution proposes changing the name of the coun­try from the Syrian Arab Republic to the Syrian Republic. The word “Arab” was inserted in 1961 shortly after the break-up of the short-lived Syrian-Egyptian Union. Syrian of­ficials wanted to prove that they were committed Arab nationalists, defending themselves against Egyp­tian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who accused them of treason.
The ruling Ba’ath Party refuses to delete “Arab”, although the sug­gested change is music to the ears of non-Arab Syrian Kurds, Turkmen and Armenians.
The new charter also dilutes presi­dential powers, taking away execu­tive authority that has been vested in the presidency since the early 1970s. The president would remain commander-in-chief of the armed forces and control military and se­curity affairs, the major components of rule in contemporary Syria.
However, he would lose the right to appoint prime ministers and their deputies, who, according to the new charter, would be chosen along eth­nic and sectarian lines, as in Iraq and Lebanon. If the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, his deputies would be Kurdish, Alawite, Druze and Christian.
This also has been strongly de­cried by Syrians from both camps — the regime objecting to a sectarian division of power; the opposition refusing to allow military powers to remain in the hands of the presi­dency.
The new charter creates a central parliament in Damascus with “local councils” to run day-to-day affairs in the provinces. This is based on a Russian belief that Syria cannot be ruled by the centralised authority in force.
Decentralisation is a must, they argue, claiming that Syrian provinc­es should elect their own governors rather than have them appointed by Damascus, use their own language (especially among Kurds) and share in their regions’ natural resources.
The people of oil-rich Deir ez-Zor, for example, have argued that they live in the richest part of Syria yet re­main the country’s poorest because all oil revenue goes to Damascus.
The new charter would give the two parliamentary chambers, in joint session, the power to declare war and martial law and appoint or dismiss a prime minister. This, too, is strongly vetoed by Damascus.
The new constitution bravely omits Article 3, which says that Syr­ian presidents have to be Muslim. This stipulation, in place since 1920, aroused controversy among Syrian Christians who argue they cannot be considered first-class citizens unless entitled to run for presidential office in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim.
Syrian politicians tried to remove the clause in 1950 as did president Hafez Assad in 1973 in a piece of political chicanery. Officials in Da­mascus, which is promoting itself as a champion of minority rights, secu­larism and women’s rights, want to see Article 3 removed so they can present an image that would coun­ter Islamists and the Islamic State (ISIS).
In June, they chose Ba’ath Party member Hadiyeh al-Abbas to be the new parliament speaker, the first woman to hold the post and, by eliminating Article 3, they are trying to win the hearts of Syrian Chris­tians and come across as a modern secular government.
Finally, the new charter keeps the presidential term at seven years, enabling an incumbent to remain in power for 14 years from the date of implementation of a new constitu­tion.
That means if Bashar Assad re­mains in power and runs in new elections, the first 16 years of his rule would not count and he could get an additional two terms, starting anywhere between 2018-21. This is what the Russians have been push­ing for politically since 2011 and mil­itarily since 2015.
Presidential elections, which have been by direct popular vote, would be limited to the Chamber of Depu­ties.
This would automatically dis­qualify 5 million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and Europe — most of them from the anti-regime camp — from having a say in choosing the head of state, because by law expa­triates can only vote in direct presi­dential polls and not in parliamen­tary elections.