In an attempt to "calm" the uprising, Bashar Assad 'conceded' to some of the demands of the opposition. However, his attempts were either too little, too late, or too vague. In May 2011, he agreed to lift the Emergency Law which has effectively suspended most constitutional protections for citizens since 1963. But that did not stop Assad's security apparatus from referring civilians to state security courts and targeting citizens who were protesting peacefully. Likewise, in October 2011, Assad asked a committee to prepare constitutional amendments that would bring in democratic reforms to the country. The amendments were finalized and put to a popular referendum on 26 February 2012. An election held in May 2012 was called a "sham" by the revolutionaries installed new members of parliament.
On the one hand, Assad sees the new constitution as the key element in a reform process, and says it will make Syria a beacon of democracy in the region. On the other hand, the opposition has boycotted the vote, calling it a farce and demanded Assad to step down. The new constitution calls for multi-party parliamentary elections within three months, which would replace the old monopoly of power enjoyed by the ruling Baath Party. One year ago, this would have appeared revolutionary, but today, activist and opposition groups have dismissed it as a sham, pointing out that the regime ignored many elements of the old constitution, which guaranteed personal and political freedoms and banned torture.
But there are more reasons for the opposition and activists to be sceptical of the new constitution and for the West to consider the reforms "laughable". For one, the Syrian government is holding a referendum on a new constitution as violence continues around the country. In many parts of Syria, violence did not decrease during the voting period and many declared that the circumstances surrounding voting stations were neither safe nor secure. Violent clashes were reported in the central city of Hama, in the north-western province of Idlib, and in Daraa province, south of Damascus.
Second, Assad asked the Baath Party to postpone its scheduled regional conference until after the referendum. However, according to Article 8 of the previous constitution, "The Baath Party is the leader of the state and society". Therefore, even if Article 8 is supposedly removed in the new constitution, this party must still meet to approve the referendum and thereafter determine the new political direction of the country – which may include giving up the leadership of the state and society. This means that during the regional conference, and after the adoption of the new constitution, the Baath Party could indeed challenge the new constitution and disapprove of the amendments and the results of the referendum on the basis that the amendments were neither put forward for public discussion, nor were they discussed by the party leaders and representatives of the people through Parliament.
Third, upon the arrival of Bashar Assad from Britain to inherit the Syrian presidency after his father's death, the Syrian parliament lowered the legal age for the president to allow him to serve, but the new constitution has since returned the age back to forty. There are no guarantees, however, that this would not occur again in the future to fit the new presidential candidate.
Forth, when Assad assumed the presidency of Syria, there was no requirement that the candidate be a permanent resident of Syria for a period not less than ten years at the time of submitting his/her candidacy. This condition was added to the new constitution to rule out the nomination of thousands of Syrian opposition activists who have been forcibly displaced outside Syria, and who are looking forward to returning to a democratic Syria.
Fifth, instead of starting the presidential term immediately after the adoption of the new constitution, the new constitution gives the current president the opportunity to complete the duration of his current term (so until 2014), and then gives him two additional 7-year terms (until 2028). At that point either Bashar's son will come to power with a constitutional amendment that will modify the legal age for the president to twenty, or one of Bashar's relatives will come to power for one session and then Bashar can head back for another two terms of fourteen years (which is similar to the current dynamic between Putin and Medvedev in Russia).
Sixth, the proposed new constitution puts the three powers (legislative, executive and judicial) in the hands of the president when necessary, and gives him the powers to dissolve parliament, to enact laws and to appoint members of the Constitutional Court and even the presidency of the judiciary. Article 117 also guarantees the president's excuse from any responsibility or accountability except in the case of high treason, which is difficult to prove and requires a decision from a two-third majority of Parliament in a secret meeting. The president would then be tried before the Supreme Constitutional Court, which according to Article 140 of the new constitution the president is responsible for nominating its seven members, while Article 133 stipulates that the president is the head of the Supreme Judicial Council.
In light of all these constitutional loopholes, the Syrian people need to reject the new draft constitution altogether and any elections that are based upon it. First, because it comes from the point of lost political and moral legitimacy. Secondly because it comes under continuous violence against the Syrian people, and thirdly because it does not fit Syria's future. What fits Syria now is a democratic constitution that would put an end to tyranny, injustice, and corruption, and would clearly set new Syrian Election Laws that would answer the aspiration of the Syrian people.
* Published in collaboration with Hivos