Even as at least 89 people were killed yesterday on Saturday across Syria and 20 on Sunday, the Syrian government is holding a referendum on a draft constitution. The new constitution calls for the implementation of a multi-party system in Syria, instead of allowing only for the ruling Ba’ath Party. Calling the referendum a “farce,” activists have boycotted it and called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
As the opposition points out, the old constitution — which allows for freedom of speech and peaceful demonstrations and bans torture — has never been followed. Syria has been ruled by the same family dynasty since 1963, when Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, seized control.
New Syrian Constitution: More Empty Promises?
As the New York Times details, the changes proposed in the new constitution contain “giant caveats.” While the president would be limited to two seven-year terms, this change would be instituted only when Assad’s current term expires in 2014. He would therefore be allowed to serve two more terms and rule until he was 62 and would then have been in power for 28 years, just two shy of the 30-year-rule of his father. In addition, only a Muslim could be president. 90 percent of Syria’s population are Muslim, but religious minorities and secular Syrians had “hoped for at least a pro forma support of pluralism.”
Other measures seem geared to keeping the political opposition from participating broadly in politics or becoming president. Candidates must have lived in Syria for ten success years and may not have a foreign-born wife (an interesting stipulation as Assad’s wife, Asma, was born in London and has a British passport). The new constitution also does not allow the creation of political parties based on race or ethnicity, effectively preventing groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the representatives of the Kurdish minority from forming such.
The Syrian government has set up 13,000 polling stations across the country, for 14.6 million voters. The stations opened at 7:00 am on Sunday morning and are to remain open for ten hours.
Violence Continues Throughout Syria
The BBC‘s Jim Muir, reporting from Lebanon, said that voting seemed to be proceeded in a “fairly normal” manner according to footage of Damascus and other places as shown on SANA, Syria’s state television network. But Muir also said that “it is far from normal, with explosions and shooting reported from the east, west, north and south” in the rest of the country. Civilians and soldiers are reported dead in the central city of Homs, which has been under siege for over three weeks. Clashes have also been reported in the city of Hama, the scene of a 1982 massacre of an estimated 20,000 residents under Hafez Assad; in the north-western province of Idlib; and in Daraa, the southern city where the uprising began almost a year also in mid-March.
Reporting from Damascus, Lina Sinjab told the BBC that she saw two people vote in the 20 minutes she was a polling center at a school “although Ahmad Baalbaki, who was supervising the process, said 300 people had cast their vote.”
Foreign Leaders Denounce Referendum
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Turkey which was a Syrian ally before the uprising, pointedly asked if “people will go to a referendum the next day in the same city” that was bombarded with artillery shells the day before. “To fight on the one hand with your people and then to claim that there is reform is contradictory,” said Davutoglu. The U.S. has characterized the referendum as “laughable.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned that Syria is edging ever closer to an all-out civil war but said that “outside intervention” could make the situation even worse.
The Red Cross has continued its efforts to evacuate residents out of the battered Bab Amr section of Homs, but said on Saturday that it had made no progress. It has not yet been able to evacuate two injured Western journalists, Edith Bouvier and Paul Conroy, and to retrieve the bodies of Marie Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, who were killed last Wednesday.
The United Nations says that over 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the government started cracking down on protesters last March but has not updated the toll, saying that it is no longer able to obtain reliable figures. Activists have put the number of those dead at over 7,400.
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Photo of Assef Shawqat, head of military intelligence, the late Hafez Assad and President Bashar al-Assad by amerune