WHEN SYRIANS WENT to the ballot box for the parliamentary elections on 22 April they faced a stark choice. Although campaigning was in full swing across the country, with candidates' portraits and slogans lining the streets, few people were expecting much of a contest. As TME went to press, the election had generated a muted response among the seven million possible voters.
After 44 years in power, the ruling Ba'ath party has had an iron grip on the Syrian state and society. Article 8 of the 1973 constitution guarantees the party controls at least 51% of the 250 seats in the People's Assembly, with the remainder shared between members of the National Progressive Front--a coalition of nine parties aligned with the Ba'ath party--and independent figures.
In spite of its impregnable position, the regime was taking no chances. With an eye to the Presidential referendum in the summer and amid reports the US was trying to unsettle the ruling elite and supply funds to opposition candidates, the Ba'ath party cut off the opposition's air supply and promoted a populist agenda with promises to reduce corruption and further liberalise the economy.
"The government knows it will win the election, but it wants to win it convincingly and without facing criticism from the opposition," said Fayez Sahra, a member of the Damascus Declaration--Syria's largest domestic opposition group. "We have become marginalised from the electorate."
The opposition largely consists of two groups of disaffected minorities--the Damascus Declaration, which operates in Syria, and the exiled opposition known as the National Salvation Front. Other smaller Kurdish parties and the expelled Muslim Brotherhood retain a network of support around the country, although membership of the Brotherhood is a capital offence in Syria.
The last 12 months witnessed a severe crackdown on activists and illegal groups in Syria. After Michel Kilo, an outspoken journalist, and Anwar Al Bunni, a lawyer who ran an EU-sponsored human rights centre, were arrested in May last year for challenging the government's position vis-a-vis Lebanon, opposition figures have been walking under a falling axe.
The regime's purge on activists like Kilo and Al Bunni, has successfully immobilised opposition groups. At the end of March the Damascus Declaration announced that its members would boycott the parliamentary elections, with many Kurdish parties following suit.
"So long as Article 8 of the Constitution exists, and...