Syria's multiparty election campaign gets into full swing


UNDETERRED BY three powerful explosions overnight, Damascenes celebrate the May Day holiday by sleeping in, lounging in parks, braving traffic jams, and sitting over small cups of Turkish coffee or lattes in smoke-filled cafes.

The sky is a dull beige, the air filled with fine yellow dust. A sprinkle of dirty rain stains buildings, cars, and roads the colour of the surrounding desert.

The campaign is in full swing a week ahead of the country’s first multiparty parliamentary election. Posters are plastered on every available wall space; banners drape over squares. Nine newly licensed parties have been formed to challenge the front dominated by the Baath Party, which has ruled since 1972. Half a dozen unlicensed parties and scores of independents have also emerged since reforms were introduced last summer.

However, parties rooted in religion, sect or ethnicity, banned in the new constitution, still have to operate underground. These include the Muslim Brotherhood and Kurdish and Assyrian parties.

Critics of the decision to go to the polls on May 7th argue that new political forces have not had time to develop and formulate distinct programmes attractive to an electorate uncertain of where the political process is going.

As in post-uprising Egypt, new parties are uttering unprecedented criticisms of the government but cannot form a coalition to seriously challenge the regime. Newspapers are freer in expressing their opinions than ever before – but limits remain.

In his flat on a hill overlooking the busy Mezze district, George Jabbour, an academic and former member of parliament, says he is optimistic. He points out that UN ceasefire monitors, deployed under the peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, are doing their best to report in a neutral way about adherence to the truce. The seizure by Lebanon last week of three weapons-filled containers on a ship bound from Libya to the rebels has shown that the government’s claims of external powers fuelling the conflict must be taken seriously, he says.

There are other reasons for optimism, he adds. “The Syrian people are split” but all three parties – the regime, the opposition and the rebels – “are tired of the situation,” causing the powers intervening in Syria to back off to a certain extent. “All are looking for an excuse for calm to return. The bombings are the last effort” of violent groups seeking to stoke civil conflict.

Walking with friends along the Mezze autostrade, in search of the UN ceasefire monitors, we pass families taking a stroll. Pasted on the entrance of a building is the death announcement of the third Syrian Red Crescent volunteer who lost his life trying to reach wounded people in a contested area. “So many have died,” says Muhammad as a funeral procession wends its way slowly through heavy traffic. “It will take decades for us to reconcile.” The Arjaa hotel apartments where the vanguard of the UN monitoring mission is based is a multistorey mall with a UN blue glass facade.

There are no white UN vehicles in the lot – the monitors are visiting the rebel-held neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs and other areas. Quizzing the reception staff, I find 20 single rooms are let, indicating that the vanguard team has not yet reached 30.

Even though in some neighbourhoods opposition activists stage a cheerful protest, handing out flowers to passersby, the bloodletting continues. Activists report that 10 people died in an army mortar attack in the northern farming village of Mishmishan, and a 13-year-old boy was killed in the nearby town of Maaret al-Numan, once a rebel stronghold. A dozen soldiers are said to have been slain in a clash with rebels in the east.

Syrian state television says scores of rebel fighters are handing in their weapons, turning themselves into the authorities, and being released.

 - More than 34 children have been killed in Syria since a shaky truce between the president Bashar al-Assad’s security forces and opposition groups began on April 12th, a UN envoy said yesterday.