The Syrian government held municipal elections this week, just as security forces and army defectors fought the biggest battle yet in a nine-month uprising. Opposition activists called for a boycott and general strike, saying the vote was meaningless since it was being held under a violent crackdown that the United Nations says has claimed 5,000 lives. Authorities insisted that the vote was freer than previous elections, proving that President Bashar al-Assad is fulfilling promises to reform a decades-old autocracy. Can any good really come from the vote?
The election is a joke: "To call this an 'election' is an abuse of the word," Mahmoud Muraie, an opposition leader, tells Abu Dhabi's The National. If the government is serious about reform and democracy, it will release political prisoners, allow independent foreign observers into the country, and stop killing people in the streets.
"Syrian opposition refuse to stand in 'utterly meaningless' elections"
It's a start, but not nearly enough: "The elections were the first real concession" Assad has made to the pro-democracy protesters, says Daniel Tovrov at International Business Times. There were 43,000 candidates running for 17,000 posts, and Assad promised that the balloting would be "free and untainted." But elections aren't much solace when you're afraid to leave the house and go to the polling station. It's easy to see why many Syrians "feel the elections are a thinly veiled" — and ineffective — "attempt at placating an angry populace."
"Syria's elections show little promise for a troubled country"
This means little for voters, but a lot for Assad: The business elites and religious minorities who support Assad still think he's "the only figure who can hold Syria together," says Jonathan Head at BBC News. So it was crucial for him to overlook the violent clashes and press ahead with the elections, which were the first under new regulations that, on paper, "give the newly elected municipalities more power. Canceling them would have risked giving an impression he was losing control."
"Syria unrest: Local elections held despite fighting"