Assad's Hollow Mandate

Syria's presidential election might be a farce -- but that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous.

Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace are co-hosting the second PeaceGame on June 18-19 in Abu Dhabi. This article provides background for some of the issues to be discussed at that event. 

On June 3, in a parody of democracy, Bashar al-Assad will be reelected as president of Syria for his third seven-year term. If he serves out this term, Assad will be eligible to run for a fourth term in 2021 that would extend his presidency to 28 years -- two years short of his father's tenure. Syrians may yet be spared almost six decades of direct Assad family rule, but the outcome of Tuesday's vote is a foregone conclusion.

Tuesday's election is easy to ridicule, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a meaningless charade. Assad's victory will further weaken international leverage over his regime, will be used by his authoritarian allies to sustain their support -- including in the U.N. Security Council -- and will diminish prospects for a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict.

The United States, the U.N., and the more than 100 governments that constitute the Friends of Syria Group (FOS), an alliance of governments opposed to Assad's continued rule, should take steps to thwart the Assad regime's efforts to exploit this phony election, enhance its legitimacy, and validate its self-serving claims to a military victory over the Syrian opposition. A preemptive move by the U.N. General Assembly, in the form of a resolution denouncing the election, rejecting the outcome as illegitimate, and insisting on a negotiated settlement of the conflict under the terms of the U.N. Geneva Protocol of June 2012, would be a small but important step in this direction.

Still, there are far more meaningful measures that can, and should, be taken. The United States and other FOS governments, which include Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Britain, can implement policies to strip the Assad regime of its legal and political legitimacy, transferring elements of sovereignty, including control over embassies, to recognized bodies of the Syrian opposition. On May 12, France closed the Syrian embassy in Paris to protest the June 3 election. Germany and Belgium have denied permission for Syrian embassies to hold expatriate voting. These are useful short-term steps, but longer-term measures to challenge the legitimacy of the regime are needed. In playing the sovereignty card, the United States and other FOS governments will not only make their rejection of the Assad regime's phony election clear, but also gain leverage in their efforts to move the Syrian conflict toward a negotiated settlement.


Syria's conflict has left 160,000 dead and more than nine million displaced. It has wreaked havoc on the country's civilian population, decimated its economy, frayed its territorial integrity, and fueled sectarian spillover that threatens the stability of neighboring states. That an election is taking place at all in the midst of such conditions underscores the determination of the Assad regime to assert its standing as the sovereign authority in Syria, the outsized importance it attaches in doing so to the kind of hollow, ritualistic displays of legalism and political participation this election represents, and the ease with which autocrats can appropriate and distort the vocabulary and form of democratic politics.

The regime and its supporters have pitched the upcoming election as a major step forward in Syria's democratic development. The June 3 vote has been organized according to electoral regulations approved in a February 2012 referendum to amend the Syrian constitution. Under the revised electoral law, Syria's president will be chosen in a multi-candidate election for the first time since the Ba'ath Party seized power in March 1963. For the past 40 years, Syrian presidents were not so much elected as affirmed through national plebiscites in which the sole candidate was routinely supported by upwards of 98 percent of participants, giving rise to any number dark jokes concerning the fate of the 1-2 percent of dissenters.

The Assad regime has billed the 2014 election as the first in which the incumbent will face competition. The Syrian, Iranian, pro-Hezbollah, and even Russian media are covering the election "race" with great fanfare. However, the fine print of the new election laws ensure that the playing field is anything but level. Candidates must be approved by 35 members of the regime's tame Parliament and by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and cannot have been convicted of a "dishonorable felony," a category that includes most political acts criminalized by the regime. Candidates must also have been resident in Syria continuously for the past 10 years -- a condition that renders most credible opposition leaders ineligible to run.

It is not procedures alone that ensure Assad's victory. In Syria's authoritarian system, the notion of a credible challenge to Bashar al-Assad is utterly implausible. The scale of destruction and displacement Syria has experienced over the past three years make risible the regime's attempts to exploit the election as a source of popular legitimacy that validate its sovereignty and authority. But none of this has interfered with the regime's efforts to cast the election as an exercise in democracy. Official Syrian media earnestly covers the campaigns of Assad's competitors, two political unknowns who dutifully play the roles the regime has assigned them. The regime has even invited election monitors from friendly governments, including Russia, China, and Iran to observe the voting: Iran promptly agreed to dispatch a delegation of parliamentarians. After the vote, Russia, China, Iran, and other authoritarian allies of the Assad regime will no doubt endorse the results.

Still, as tempting as it might be, it would be a mistake to dismiss the election as a farce -- it has already caused real harm. It has accelerated the resignation of U.N. special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who said on March 14 that "holding elections [in Syria] would doom prospects for future talks by negating the need for an interim government." Without a swift and compelling response from the United States and other lead FOS governments, the election will continue to muddle the international case against Assad. Election results will be hauled out at every opportunity to justify regime intransigence, continue to stymie the efforts of the U.N. Security Council to act on issues such as the regime's obstruction of humanitarian assistance, and undermine possibilities for a negotiated settlement based on the internationally-agreed Geneva Protocol of June 2012.

Even as President Obama expands military support for the Syrian opposition, the United States should work with its allies to develop a coherent and compelling diplomatic response to the upcoming election. The most effective strategy available to the administration is to play the sovereignty card: Accelerating the transfer of sovereignty from the Assad regime to its opponents is a powerful tool that the Obama administration has been reluctant to use, but should now add to its Syria repertoire. It not only constitutes an appropriate response to the Assad regime's electoral gambit, but will give the administration significant political and diplomatic leverage and improve prospects for a negotiated settlement. Calculated measures that affirm the illegitimacy of the Assad regime and its principal responsibility for Syria's descent into brutal civil war constitute an explicit rejoinder to those who have abused sovereignty claims, including Russia and China, to insulate the regime from international pressure and reduce its incentives to take negotiations seriously.

Transferring elements of sovereignty to the opposition, including control over embassies and related governmental functions such as renewing passports -- a critical issue for tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled regime repression and are denied citizen services by regime-held embassies -- would also, generate a range of diplomatic and political opportunities for the Obama administration and other leading FOS governments. Such steps would provide legal underpinnings for the view of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that the U.N. does not require any additional authority from the Security Council to distribute humanitarian aid without the Assad regime's approval. They would provide the legitimacy needed by the opposition Interim Government to become a meaningful presence in the large areas of Syria that are out of regime control -- and likely to remain so for some time -- but lack effective governance. It would empower international and regional organizations to deal directly with the opposition as a semi-sovereign entity. And it would greatly increase the regime's incentives to negotiate, while establishing a more level playing field for any future negotiations between the regime and the opposition.

The United States and its partners have an opportunity to use Assad's electoral farce to strengthen their hand, secure leverage over the regime and its allies, and advance the goal of an end to the violence that has torn Syria apart. To seize this opportunity, the Obama administration has to take its own rhetoric seriously, back up its often-professed view that the Assad regime is illegitimate, and begin the incremental transfer of sovereignty to the recognized bodies of the Syrian opposition. The election is an opportunity for the Assad regime to argue for its legitimacy on the world stage -- and for the world to reject that claim. The United States and its allies who oppose Assad's brutal rule should not let this opportunity go to waste.


Democracy Lab

What Strongmen Have to Fear

Autocrats have increasing reason to fear the power of people in the streets. Here's why the leaders of democracies should take note.

Since January 2010, mass protests have contributed to the ousting of autocratic leaders from Kyrgyzstan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. These events caused many political observers to celebrate the ability of the masses to topple dictators and spur political change. And in our most recent study, we find that these movements are indicative of a broader shift in the politics of authoritarian regimes: Revolts (leader exits due to mass protests, uprisings, strikes, or riots) are unseating a greater proportion of autocrats than ever before.

Using data from political scientist Milan Svolik that capture autocratic exits from 1948 to 2008, and our own updates through 2012, we find that the percentage of autocrats ousted in revolts has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War. In fact, from 2010-2012, a quarter of dictators who lost power did so via revolt. At the same time, coups have declined considerably in the post-Cold War era. The proportion of autocrats ousted via coup -- which accounted for as much as half of all autocrat ousters in the 1960s and ‘70s, for example -- has fallen to less than 10 percent in the last decade. Revolts have now overtaken coups as the most common way in which autocrats exit from power.

So why does this trend matter? The way that an autocrat exits office affects the political trajectory of a country. The underwhelming performance of democracy in the wake of the Arab Awakening and pessimism about Ukraine's future after President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster have led some to claim that people-powered revolutions are overrated. While it is true that autocratic ousters lead to democratization only 20 percent of the time, our research shows that the prospects for democracy are actually highest when ousters occur via revolt. Revolts were followed by transitions to democracy 45 percent of the time from 1946 to 2012. Successful coups, in contrast, resulted in democracy in only 10 percent of autocrat ousters.

This is not to say that Western actors seeking to support democracy should endorse revolt across the board; uprisings come with their own significant costs and caveats. Revolts capable of threatening a leader's position are usually violent events that put citizens' lives on the line. Furthermore, revolt is far from a surefire way to topple an autocrat -- as the protests following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election, the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, and the underwhelming Arab Spring protests of Algeria and Jordan underscore. And even in the cases where such revolts do result in autocrat exit, democracy follows less than half of the time. These results hardly constitute a definitive recommendation for democracy promoters -- but they do shape our understanding of how political change happens, and can shape democracy-promotion strategies going forward.

The growing vulnerability of autocrats to revolts marks a pronounced rise in the importance of the people in the survival of dictators. Historically, autocrats have been most concerned with threats emanating from the elite, and therefore relied on strategies such as elite rotation and other coup-proofing tactics to mitigate such threats. As more dictators are being toppled by revolt, these leaders must go to greater lengths, playing an increasingly complex game to remain in control. In other words, today's dictators have to contend not only with threats emanating from the elite, but increasingly from those they govern. This trend is something current autocrats are surely attuned to, and is affecting the political dynamics at play in these regimes in ways that generate at least three key implications for Western engagement with authoritarian governments.

First, autocrats are becoming more unpredictable partners. Authoritarian leaders who feel most at risk of popular revolt are factoring public opinion into their decisions to a greater extent than they have in years past. This means that leaders who previously felt unconstrained in their abilities to pursue sometimes publicly unpopular initiatives with the United States, such as counter-terrorism or counter-narcotics cooperation, may be less willing to do so for fear of popular blowback. In other words, some of our most important "frenemies" could become unreliable partners. Alternatively, public sentiment that aligns with Western interests may prompt some autocrats to increase their level of engagement in certain domains to enhance their standing with their countrymen.

Next, Western engagement with the political opposition and the public is becoming ever more difficult. The vivid images of revolts featured in the media provide autocrats with convenient "examples" of Western efforts to destabilize their countries. Anti-Western narratives, particularly dominant since the Color Revolutions, have featured prominently in the survival strategies of autocrats in Russia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe, just to name a few. Most recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly blamed the West for orchestrating Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has used his state controlled media to blame the United States for ongoing protests in his country. (In the photo above Venezuelan opposition protesters face off with security forces in San Cristobal.) The rise of revolts, therefore, makes it easier for autocrats to discredit members of their political opposition or other pro-democracy advocates by labeling them puppets of the West. This increases the risk that Western involvement could actually undermine local pro-democracy efforts. Moreover, in many cases, local activists may eschew Western support, preferring to go it alone or to forge their own ties with non-Western opposition leaders with experience leading successful movements of their own. In such an environment, it is likely that the West will find it increasingly difficult to plug-in to local democracy promotion efforts.     

Finally, autocrats are striking back against the masses with even greater restrictions on civil and political liberties. The prevalence of revolt and anti-Western narratives provides authoritarian leaders with justification for greater repression. Autocrats afraid of revolt are using anti-NGO laws and other legislation to limit the space for opposition. Following the 2011 protests in Russia -- which brought tens of thousands out onto the streets in the largest anti-Kremlin protests since the 1990s -- Putin proposed (and subsequently passed) a new treason act and a "foreign agent law." The latter requires NGOs engaging in political activity and accepting funding from abroad to register as "foreign agents," severely restricting the ability of Western actors to engage in Russia. The turmoil in Ukraine and Putin's probable fear that such unrest could spark opposition in his own country has pushed him even further in his pursuit to limit domestic political freedoms. If revolts continue to unseat autocrats, observers and practitioners are likely to have even less space for engagement.

Should these trends continue, effective democratization efforts will require both an understanding of these dynamics and a new and innovative set of strategies. In the past, the West has worked with political opposition or local democracy advocates, including by publicly backing opposition movements to enhance their domestic legitimacy (as was the course in the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos, in South Korea under Syngman Rhee, and in Chile under Augusto Pinochet). This strategy may have limited applicability in today's environment. By offering overt support for the political opposition in many autocracies, Western countries would risk undermining local pro-democracy efforts.

Instead, the United States will have to pay more attention to public sentiment in autocratic countries. It must put forth greater effort to neutralize anti-Western attitudes and frame U.S. cooperation with autocracies in ways that highlight the benefits to the local population. Another effective strategy would be to leverage the rising threat of the masses through indirect engagement. For example, sustained international media attention to regime abuses increases the likelihood that autocrats will avoid actions that could breed public discontent or elicit domestic backlash. In addition, autocrats are likely to be attuned to the public perception of their legitimacy, which, even in autocracies, is largely shaped by citizens' views of procedural fairness. Efforts to publicize government failures to comply with their own legal system, to track the unjust application of laws (including the use of tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down the opposition), or to criticize new legislation that threatens domestic rights could be particularly effective.

In this new political climate, the United States and its partners in democracy must find creative ways to level the playing field for the political opposition and other activists. That may be its best bet for advancing their causes in a world where autocrats increasingly fear the power of the masses.

George CASTELLANO/AFP/Getty Images