The Road to Syrian Democracy

The new political party law in Syria is very important, but has been overshadowed by news of street demonstrations, violence, refugees fleeing to Turkey, and military intervention in different Syrian cities.
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A new political party law has been drafted in Syria and is now posted online for public debate. It is due for ratification by parliament next August. If it passes, the law would effectively end one-party rule in Syria, which started when the Baathists came to power, through military coup, back in March 1963. In the early 1970s, they allowed for cosmetic political parties to emerge -- all of them being leftist -- under umbrella of a parliamentary coalition called the National Progressive Front (NPF). The NPF was a mediocre alliance of socialist parties that strove not to come to power -- as any serious political party would aspire -- but to cement Baath Party rule in Syria. Ruling in such an outdated manner is now no longer possible, certainly not after demonstrations broke out throughout Syria last March, demanding political change. When the new political party law passes, it means de facto cancellation of Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which designates the Baath Party as "leader of state and society." One-party rule and a democracy, after all, cannot go hand-in-hand.

The new political party law is very important, but has been overshadowed by news of street demonstrations, violence, refugees fleeing to Turkey, and military intervention in different Syrian cities. Its first breakthrough is that it acknowledges that the ultimate aim of any political party -- unlike those in the NPF -- is to "come to power" and rotate in the executive and legislative branch. The status of "ruling party," therefore, can no longer be monopolized by the Baath. Parties with a religious, tribal, or ethnic agenda, however, will not be allowed to operate in Syria. This clause was meant to prevent the rise of Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been outlawed since they waged war against the state back in 1979-1982.

According to the new law, a "Party Affairs Committee" will be established and chaired by the Minister of Interior. Its members will include a judge from the Court of Cassation, and three independents appointed by the President of the Republic. Any person wanting to establish a political party will have to apply for a license along with 50 founding members "over the age of 25." They have to be residents of Syria representing no less than 50% of Syrian governorates. Additionally, party founders need to have a clean legal record and cannot be members of any other political party simultaneously. Any party needs to have secured 2,000 members at the time of applying, along with premises for its headquarters. Parties cannot use government agencies to market themselves, nor can they operate out of charity organizations, educational institutes, or religious venues (church or mosque). That will also apply to the Baath Party, which ironically, has used and abused government agencies, schools, and universities for over 40-years, recruiting members, staging rallies, and marketing Baathist ideology.

The Party Affairs Committee is required to approve or decline any party application within a 7-day period. If a party license is turned down for any reason, founders can take the matter to court within a 15-day period, and re-apply. Parties can recruit members within Syrians and among Syrians in the Diaspora, but they cannot receive funds from non-Syrian sources. The funding of parties comes from membership fees, investments, and donations from within Syria. Multiple donations cannot be made by the same source, the new law says, and cannot exceed 2 million SP/year. All premises, correspondences, telephone calls, and publications will be immune from the security services, and cannot be monitored unless approved by a court warrant. Additionally, the new law says that all parties need to be given equal access to all Syrian media, both the private and state-run -- which is also groundbreaking since traditionally, it was only the Baath that had access to Syrian TV and Radio. Finally, any party is entitled to issue its own publication, without even applying for a license. It gets that right automatically once the political party is licensed by the Party Affairs Committee.

Most importantly, the new law will apply to all parties, even those already in operation like the Baath. They would have to apply for a license from scratch, based on the above mentioned laws and regulations. The Baath can meet those requirements, having operated in Syria since 1947, but it is highly doubted that other parties in the NPF (with the exception of the Communist Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party) can survive in a truly pluralist system. The only reason people joined those mediocre socialist parties in the first place was because they had a pre-set quota in government and parliament -- given to them by the Baath. If the Baath itself is no longer in a position to reward its allies for their loyalty, it is highly doubtful that NPF parties will continue to exist. Meaning, the entire NFP needs to be canceled, and new parliamentary alliances should be allowed to emerge, free from Baath Party domination.

A lesson from history

At one point, not too long ago, Syria had one of the healthiest democracies in the Middle East. That of course was in addition to 47 political periodicals published throughout the country, ranging between dailies, evening papers, weeklies and monthlies. No less than 10 political parties operated in a truly multi-party system, legalized not through a party law, but by a "political party clause" in the constitution of 1928. During the first parliamentary elections of 1932, for example, two parties competed for the presidency, along with three independents. The two parties, now dead, were the Monarchial Party, which strove to restore a Hashemite throne to Syria, and the National Bloc, a coalition of urban notables who worked to bring down the French Mandate in Syria. Five Syrian politicians ran for presidential elections back then, and one of them, the independent millionaire Mohammad Ali al-Abed, became the first president of Syria.

In the post-French era, a wide array of political parties emerged: the National Party of Damascus, the People's Party of Aleppo, the Syrian Communist Party, the Social Cooperative Party, the Baath Party, the Arab Socialist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1953, a new party emerged, being the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM). All of them were collectively outlawed -- their offices closed and their newspapers suspended -- when the Baathists came to power in 1963. Not all of these parties were politically mature, however, by today's standards, but they created a healthy system that needs to be re-visited in order to learn lessons from Syria's modern history in anticipation of a new Syrian party law. The National Party and People's Party, for example, had no ideology, but rather, represented the commercial and political interests of Damascus and Aleppo. The People's Party strove for union with Iraq whereas the National Party was allied to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The SSNP wanted to establish Greater Syria, doing away with the artificial borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Muslim Brotherhood strove for a theocracy in Syria, whereas the Communists wanted a classless Marxist society.

The founders of these parties are all long dead -- but their legacy lives in history books, popular culture, and the minds of Syrians who are still around to tell the story of how Syrian politics used to be, prior to 1963. The healthy environment enabled seasoned politicians like Michel Aflaq, Rushdi al-Kikhiya, Khaled Bakdash, and Shukri al-Quwatli, and Fares al-Khury to create and lead political parties in Syria. The democratic system allowed for a rotation of power: the National Party ruled Syria between 1946 and 1949 only to be replaced -- through the ballots -- by the People's Party during the years 1949-1951. One might argue that the current environment dictates a new reality. A real democracy needs plenty of training and experience, along with new Aflaqs, Kikhiyas, and Quwatlis -- who to date, are yet to emerge in Syria. This will happen only when the Baathists accept the hard reality that they have to share power and can longer rule Syria if not mandated to do so by a majority of Syria's 22 million. Currently, the Baathists boast of 2.8 million members but that number is likely to drop significantly once the party loses its status as "leader of state and society." When equality prevails, Syrians of all colors (the Baathists certainly included) can work, hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder, to build a true democracy for Syria.

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