Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Syria Dangles 'Political Party Law' Carrot

Whether real new parties or just remakes of old and existing ones will emerge, is a question yet to be answered
By Sami Moubayed
On August 4, a new political party law was passed in Syria, allowing for the establishment of new parties not allied to the ruling Baath. Contrary to what optimists had expected, it does not break the Baath Party's monopoly on power which has been in place since 1963.
Some are welcoming this as a step in the right direction. They argue that it will lay the foundations for a new political environment that one day will lead to democratic change through the ballot rather than the bullet. Heavyweights in the opposition have flatly rejected the law, so long as the Baath Party still rules by virtue of Article 8 of the Constitution, which designates it as "leader of state and society".
When reading through the new law, the first of its kind since 1958, you find one big major loophole in the first paragraph, which defines what a political party should be. In the original draft, it outlined a party's objective as the "rotation of power, power sharing, and contributing to political life in Syria". In the final draft that came out after one month of debate, two phrases were cut: ‘rotation of power' and ‘power sharing.' This means the Baath Party would retain its leadership role in Syria while other parties would emerge ‘contributing' to political life in the country. They would not be allowed to share power with the Baath party or to come to power and enjoy the status of the Baath party.
Regardless of this gross shortcoming, the fact that the Baathists finally accepted parties other than their own to operate in Syria is in itself a major step forward. Parties cannot use government agencies to market themselves, nor can they operate through charity organisations, educational institutions or religious venues (mosques or churches). Any party having a religious or ethnic agenda will be banned — a phrase hammered out exclusively for the outlawed Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
New project
Already, some are considering leaving the Baath and establishing a new party, like Samira Masalmeh, the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Tishreen newspaper. She is engaged in the Social Democratic Party, which is to be granted a licence. It's motto is: "Freedom, Justice, and Development." A more serious project is that of Mohammad Salman, the long-serving information minister under president Hafez Al Assad. Salman, who has been out of office for 11 years, gathered 41 Baathists to constitute what was recently declared "The Democratic National Initiative for Syria's Salvation". The initiative, which will soon transform into a political party, aims to end the military operations and start a national dialogue "headed by President [Bashar Al] Assad".
For months, the Turks had been advising Damascus to carry out serious, far-reaching reforms. Among other things, they have advised lifting martial law, ending arbitrary arrests, bringing wrongdoers to justice, ending one-party rule, drafting a new constitution, and carrying out early, democratic and internationally-observed parliamentary and presidential elections. During a recent visit to Syria, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu welcomed the political party law, but asked that military operations be immediately halted. As a gesture of goodwill towards their Turkish guest, the Syrians withdrew their army from Hama the following day. Davutoglu mentioned power-sharing with the opposition, recommending the creation of a ‘national unity' cabinet that includes opposition veterans.
What was really vital, he added, was dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. If Syria asked or was so willing, he added, then Ankara could play the mediator with the Brotherhood. The new generation of Brotherhood figures, the Turks have been saying, is not like that. They look and sound like Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) given that many of the party's original founders were close to the Syrian Brotherhood.
It is yet to be seen whether the Brotherhood will try to work around the new party law, re-establishing their party in Syria under a new name with a declared agenda that makes no reference to political Islam. That is what happened in Egypt recently. The Muslim Brotherhood there re-emerged after nearly 60 years of underground activity, under a new name with a new agenda — the Freedom and Justice Party. That always remains an option, which might get challenged by the Baathists themselves. This, as they are also likely to re-emerge with a new name and new agenda. Salman's party, after all, can do to the original Baath what the Freedom and Justice Party did to the original Egyptian Brotherhood. New look, new name, new approach, new PR, and new rhetoric — but the same core values and fundamental principles. Whether real new parties will emerge with the political party law, or just remakes of old and existing ones, is a question yet to be answered in the highly complex web of Syrian politics.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 16/08/2011
-Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus

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