Damascus, April 23 - Amid a shaky truce and presence of UN monitors, Syria is bracing to hold its first multi-party parliamentary elections in five years next month that hopes to provide space for a nascent political opposition in the restive Middle East country where thousands have died from a civil conflict in the last months.
The campaign has yet to pick up pace, with the ruling Baath party in the process of unveiling its candidates. But on street corners and the bustling souks (local markets), people are found in small huddles discussing the Syrian situation and the upcoming elections.
Candidates from 18 political parties are in the fray. The walls of the city and lampposts are splashed with posters of old and new politicians who are competing in this electoral contest, which will be watched closely by the world.
"Well, I am not going to tell you who I am voting for. That's a secret. But we are hoping elections will bring in more stability," Mahmoud, a shopkeeper who sells local sweets and candies at the old Damascus souk that is said to be more than 1,000 years old, told a visiting IANS correspondent.
There is no chanting of slogans and carnival-like campaigning one associates with older established democracies. Predictably, the atmosphere is subdued with people often voicing fears of violence that may mar the polls. But people say, at least in the Syrian capital, that they will not be deterred by fears and will make their choice known at the secret ballot.
"We are not afraid to vote. All good Syrians should come out to vote," says Khalid al Homsi, a restaurant owner who spent many years in the US before returning home.
The besieged Syrian government, under increased international pressure to deliver on reforms, hopes elections would help stabilize the situation amid charges and counter-charges by the regime and opposition activists of engineering violence in different parts of Syria like Homs and Hama.
"The only way out of the present crisis is the ballot box where the will of the people will be expressed," Fayssal Mekdad, vice-minister of foreign affairs, told IANS.
The campaign will gain momentum after the Baath party announces its list of candidates in the next 3-4 days, says Mekdad.
"There is a great enthusiasm among the voters. We are hoping for a good turnout," Mahmoud Al Abrash, president of the Syrian Peoples' Council, told IANS.
The May 7 elections will be held under a new legislation passed three months ago that allowed nine new political parties to enter the fray and revoked the decades-old clause that the ruling Baath Party was "leader of state and society". Currently, there are nine political parties, including the ruling Baath Party. These nine parties are a coalition of sorts, calling themselves the Progressive Front.
Nearly 14 million people are eligible to vote in the elections in a country of 24 million people. High turnout is doubtful as the Syrian government fears that the rebels will do all they can to disrupt the elections, thereby marring the credibility of the exercise in international eyes.
"The armed opposition may create unfavourable groups. They are undemocratic," said Mekdad.
The result of the elections to the 250-member Syrian People's Council appear to be a foregone conclusion, with the Baath party having 3.5 million registered members that leaves the opposition miles behind. The next big party is the Communist Party of Syria which has only around 30,000-50,000 members. But the decision to hold the elections amid rebel threats is seen as the first concrete step by the Bashr al-Assad regime in widening the political space for the growth of other political parties.
Currently, the ruling Baath party has 127 seats in the 250-member parliament.
The new constitution bars the formation of political parties on the basis of religious, tribal, regional, denominational, or profession-related basis, or be a branch of or affiliated to a non-Syrian party or political organisation, which effectively excludes the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or Kurdish parties seeking regional autonomy.
(Manish Chand can be contacted at email@example.com)