Far from providing a local mandate, elections instead will serve to support land seizures, rehabilitate the Baath Party and boost reconstruction funding.
The Syrian regime will hold local council elections of 16 September the first time since the outbreak of hostilities in 2011. They form part of the regime's attempt to demonstrate stability, restore local legitimacy and rebuild the patronage system that connected the population to the regime through civic institutions. But, like other ‘reconciliation’ moves by the regime, they in fact embody the abandonment of any consensual political solution and mark an attempt to consolidate and build on its gains.
One of these is entrenching demographic change in recaptured territory. The regime has recently passed laws like Law No. 10 of 2018 to compel residents to prove property ownership in short time spans, knowing that most will be unable to do this and thus enabling the regime to seize large swathes of property and redistribute them among sectarian allies.
Local councils are mentioned in Law No. 10 as entities for the implementation of this law which comes with a number of other laws creating approximately 70 new municipalities, most of them in Hama Governorate and Rif Dimashq. This has had the effect of weakening traditional urban centres such as Douma and Arbin, which were incubators of the uprising.
In Darayya, one of the most important strongholds of the Syrian uprising, the situation is similar – many people cannot prove their ownership under Law No. 10 because of the large volume of applicants and people displaced from the city. The list of candidates for the upcoming local council elections in the city is dominated by the names of Baath Party veterans.
The Baath Party has been a marginal military force during the war, compared to the larger local militias within the National Defence Forces, the local defence forces or foreign Shia militias. But the elections allow for the restoration of the party's political and local role. The regime is keen to give the impression of a return to pre-2011 conditions, linked largely to the re-establishment of the old networks of influence.
Along with the Baath Party, a group of new actors is lining up in anticipation of rewards and domains of influence in exchange for their services, including local leaders loyal to the regime, business people on the lookout for rebuilding contracts to be overseen by companies owned or supervised by these administrative units, and militias allied with the regular army.
Iran is looking for gains as well. The upcoming elections are an opportunity to test the extent of Iranian influence in areas where it is active, such as Rif Dimashq and the countryside around Homs and Deir ez Zor, and to trial a new strategy for remaining influential in Syria after the war is over.
Although there is no international agreement on reconstruction in Syria, the regime and its allies have begun to sign economic agreements and private companies — close to the ruling family — are starting to implement reorganization and construction projects in the suburbs destroyed by fighting. The UN has also maintained its activities and provided aid programs in regime-controlled areas.
The regime is now betting on welcoming new investors through the local councils once these administrative units are empowered to create regulatory zones and investment companies under Law 10 of 2018. This is on top of the investment powers granted to them in Law 107 of 2011, which allows them to recruit financing or investments independently, seemingly, of the central government.
At a practical level, these new local councils are not expected to contribute anything new when it comes to progress in reconstruction or investor confidence – not to mention foreign confidence — in the economic or security climate, as much as they act as consolation prizes for new actors by way of limited economic contracts. The councils will contribute through creating new regulatory zones and reconstituting former opposition areas by consolidating broad demographic and societal changes.
On balance, local elections will not result in a renaissance in reconstruction or propel decentralization in local governance – nor will they achieve a sense of representation and partnership among local communities.
Ahmad Abazid is a Syrian writer and researcher interested in Syrian affairs, Islamic groups and Wahhabism. He writes for several e-newspapers and research centres.