Syrian elections: why are dictators so addicted to sham votes?

An old photograph taken of Maher al-Hajjar in his office; above his desk is a formal portrait of Mr Assad. Photo: TWITTER

Syria, that glistening democratic jewel of the Middle East, is about to show its rowdy neighbours how a truly free election is carried out. Not my own words, I hasten to add, but those of the Syrian government, which insists that today’s “presidential elections” will be a perfectly free and fair contest.

Never mind the small matter of the civil war that has raged for the last three years. Never mind that large parts of the country cannot vote due to fighting. And never mind that a certain Bashar Assad (Ba’athist, Damascus Central) is all but certain to win, hence the British government branding it “a grotesque parody of democracy.”

To be fair, Mr Assad is facing some competition from two rival candidates – which is two more than he faced in his previous “presidential referendum” held in 2007.  But both are relative unknowns, and in terms of the challenge they pose, it’s the equivalent of a Syrian tank taking on a rebel armed with a broken Kalashnikov.

One candidate is Syrian MP Maher al-Hajjar, whose past publicity photos include one of him posing under a portrait of President Assad. Hardly a breath of fresh air, then. And the other is Hassan Nouri, a former economics professor whose main pledge is liberalising Syria’s economy and fighting corruption. On the matter of the war – arguably the one and only issue right now – he reckons Assad is already doing the right thing.

The question, therefore, is not so much about who will win this bizarre Potemkin contest, but why it’s even being held. And more generally, why do such autocrats insist on holding such one-sided contests in the first place, when they know that landslide votes in their favour is no guarantee of affection? After all, in his 2007 referendum, Mr Assad got 97.62 percent. Given that half his country was in open revolt a mere four years later, it wasn’t exactly Gallup standard as a gauge of public opinion.

Yet a look at the polling history of various dictatorships shows that very few despots can resist the lure of the rigged ballot. In this entertaining blog “The dictator’s dilemma: To win with 95 percent or 99?”, the Foreign Policy magazine scribe Joshua Keating does some research on the subject. He discovers that from Turkmenistan through to North Korea, most autocrats poll at least ninety per cent of the vote – almost double, and sometimes treble what their counterparts in most democracies can expect.

Keating does, however, detect a subtle statistical difference between savvier despots, like Hosni Mubarak, who would settle for slightly less than 90 per cent in order to give the contest some credibility, and the real hardliners who seek complete infallibility. The latter include the Castros in Cuba and Kim Jong Il, who are in the “99 per cent club”. And top of the bill comes Iraq’s Saddam Hussein – remember him? – who got a full 100 per cent in 2002. Just a year later he was overthrown.

True, by those standards, Mr Assad will indeed seem like a laid-back democrat if he settles even for say, 75 per cent of the vote. But in his case, that isn’t really the point. As a wise Egyptian friend of mine, Dr Ali Abdelwahab, points out, in dictatorships an election is seen in much the same way as a military parade – as a chance for an ostentatious show of strength. And right now in Syria, that is just what President Assad wants.

“The idea of the poll is to demonstrate the appearance of stability, despite everything that is going on,” Dr Abdelwahab tells me. “To organise the machinations of an election despite a civil war is a show of force, to prove that Assad is still in charge.”

In other words, it’s rather like the old story of the starving city under siege that allows a fatted calf to escape. The siegemakers outside, upon seeing how well-fed the calf is, assume that the city has years’ worth of food still left and gives up the siege. Whether such a confidence trick can really work in the 21st century, though, is another matter.

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