by Larry Garber
With more than 12 million refugees and internally displaced persons, any effort to organize credible Syrian elections that would contribute to resolving the on-going conflict seems an exercise in fantasy. Yet this week, in a presentation to the UN Security Council, UN Special Representative for Syria Staffan de Mistura stated that the time has come for the UN “to provide specific elaborations on the constitutional and electoral baskets.” With respect to elections specifically, de Mistura highlighted the wealth of experience that the UN has accumulated since it supervised the 1989 election in Namibia.
Unease with de Mistura’s proposal is anticipated. The Assad government undoubtedly will object to the UN developing an election plan as potentially compromising Syrian sovereignty. The opposition, meanwhile, will worry that de Mistura’s plan will result in Bashar al-Assad remaining as President. And yet, with little sign that the on-going Syrian tragedy is abating and a dearth of better alternatives, the U.S. should welcome the special representative’s initiative and encourage the Russians and others to do likewise.
Notwithstanding the conflict, elections are happening in Syria today. In areas controlled by opposition forces, elections for local administrative councils have taken place in many municipalities, with various levels of credibility and inclusivity. These elections have provided a legitimacy to the local councils, which are responsible for maintaining essential services and distributing humanitarian relief. In Kurdish-controlled areas in the northeast of the country, a three-stage process of elections began in September, which is slated to culminate in early 2018 with an election for a regional parliament. And the regime continues to operate according the election cycle set forth in the 2012 amendments to the constitution, with parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020 and presidential elections for 2021.
For multiple and obvious reasons, these elections do not meet international standards nor are they contributing to a cessation of the conflict. Hence, some form of international involvement in a future electoral process is essential. Recognizing this reality, UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted in 2015, calls for “free and fair elections … administered under supervision of the United Nations … to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate.”
Efforts to implement this mandate have proved impossible. Despite extensive prodding by the UN Special Representative as part of the “Geneva process,” the leading Syrian actors refuse to agree on key principles, or even to meet face-to-face. At the same time, various external actors, most notably the Russians, have pursued parallel efforts identified by the various cities—Astana and Sochi—where they have sought to broker an agreement.
De Mistura’s latest gambit has the potential to unravel several knots. To accomplish this objective, he must interpret the phrase “under UN supervision” in the broadest possible manner and present precise proposals for revising the Syrian electoral framework. Specifically, his plan should modify Syria’s current system for electing the legislature, should insist on a pro-active UN role in selecting election administrators, should guarantee the effective participation of Syrians displaced by the war, and should elaborate on the external forces necessary to ensure electoral security.
Syria currently relies on a multi-member district, block voting system for electing members of the national legislature. As demonstrated by the results in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the block system heavily favors a disciplined party, which in the Syrian context would benefit the long-ruling Baath party. Because forming single-member districts would be too complicated in a post-conflict setting, some form of proportional representation would be the appropriate choice for an initial UN supervised election.
The legal framework also must be revised to ensure that those administering the elections are not all partisans of the Baath party. Given Syrian realities, the UN should play a major role in designating Syrian election administrators and in forming an independent body to review electoral complaints. The inclusion of election officials and election experts from outside Syria in the central administrative and adjudicative bodies would add considerable credibility to the electoral process.
The most difficult technical dilemmas facing election planners concern the large number of Syrians who are living outside the country or within Syria but away from their pre-war place of residence. To ensure a smooth out-of-country voting process, precise legal protocols must be negotiated with each government hosting Syrian refugees and dual nationals. For the post-conflict elections in Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the International Organization of Migration was assigned responsibility for administering the out-of-country voting and performed credibly.
Rules governing voting for internally displaced Syrians must carefully balance practical and philosophical considerations. Clearly, the election process should not reward those who have forced former neighbors to leave their homes, but some of those displaced may now have resettled and prefer to associate politically with their current area of residence. To the maximum extent possible, this category of voters should have the option of casting their ballot and having it counted in either their current or pre-war place of residence.
Ideally, voter and candidate eligibility would be linked to a transitional justice program, whereby those guilty of war crimes or serious human rights violations would be proscribed from participating. However, it may be impossible to create such linkages, as organizing a legal infrastructure capable of investigating and prosecuting the most heinous crimes will require more time than is advisable in meeting the exigency of conducting timely elections. But allowing elections to proceed with alleged war criminal participation should not undermine the importance of encouraging a legal reckoning at an appropriate time.
Security considerations also must be incorporated into the election planning process. This involves more than just guaranteeing the safety of international personnel or providing security on election day. Rather, a holistic security effort is required to ensure the freedom of candidates to campaign, of media to report, and of civic organizations to conduct voter education and domestic monitoring programs. Given the Syrian reality, this will probably involve a UN authorized external security presence for an extended period of time.
De Mistura’s presentation projected an autonomous UN role in developing an election plan, but hedged with respect to the constitutional basket. In the latter instance, he sought to rely on a constitutional committee and a national conference to develop a new constitution, without specifying a mechanism for their formation. Given that Resolution 2254 provides for elections only after the new constitution is approved, this could be a recipe for continued stalemate.
To minimize this prospect, Resolution 2254 should be revised to call for the election of an assembly that would draft a new constitution and simultaneously serve as the interim national legislature. The UN Special Representative would be authorized to move forward with these assembly elections as soon as he can certify that pre-defined security conditions have been met in at least 90 percent of the country and that a UN supervisory mechanism could organize a credible process. With an enhanced mandate, the Special Representative would be in a position to cope more effectively with potential spoilers.
Obviously, revising Resolution 2254 and authorizing preparations for a robust UN electoral supervision exercise will require agreement between the United States and Russian governments. Given the recent joint Trump-Putin statement in Vietnam, such a meeting of the minds seems more feasible today than in previous times. The Trump Administration is less insistent on making Assad’s departure the sine qua non for moving forward with a political solution. And having declared victory, the Russians are looking for a face-saving mechanism to reduce their exposure in Syria. Empowering the UN to cut through the never-ending impasse might serve both their interests.
Photo: Staffan de Mistura (R) with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
Larry Garber, an international election expert, recently facilitated a day-long Syrian Election Roundtable organized by People Demand Change.