Syria: Democracy and the Future of Article 8

Last week, stories surfaced in the Lebanese and Arabic press, saying that Syria was about to do away with Article 8 of the constitution that designates the Ba’ath Party as “leader of state and society.”  This of course was before President Bashar al-Assad gave a speech on Monday, hinting to the possibility of either doing away with Article 8, or changing the entire Syrian Constitution.  It was the first time since 1963 that a Syrian president made mention of Article 8 and the first time that a presidential address acknowledged the fact that there is an “opposition” in Syria.

Canceling Article 8 has been a high priority for the Syrian opposition for 40 years.  For decades, however, the Ba’athists refused to discuss the Article, claiming that, given the Ba’ath Party’s secular agenda, this article prevented radical Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, from coming to power in Syria.

The argument for canceling it resurfaced forcefully in March when demonstrations broke out in different Syrian cities demanding political and economic change.  Depending on whom one talks to in Syria, people are either 100% committed to ending Ba’ath Party supremacy — its pre-set majority — or fully committed to maintaining the status quo, without realizing how dangerous it is to refuse admitting how much times have changed for Syria.

Pragmatic officials within Ba’ath are also pushing for cancelation of Article 8, claiming that to survive the Ba’ath regime has to reform from within.  Otherwise, simply put, it will collapse.  The Syrian government cannot continue to rule with the same methods, tools, and figures that have dominated public life since 1970.

Hardliners, however, are objecting to any modification to the Ba’ath Party’s standing, claiming that any constitutional amendment needs parliamentary approval, which is difficult at this stage, since parliament is not in session.  They are frantic that, if the Ba’ath Party falls, so will their privileged status in Syrian society and public life.

On May 30, the assistant secretary general of the Ba’ath Party, Mohammad Said Bkheitan, put it bluntly, defiantly saying, “We have 2.8 million Ba’athists in Syria, while those demonstrating are no more than 100,000.”  He then added, “We tell the opposition: if you come to power through elections, you can cancel Article 8 of the constitution!”

The opposition immediately fired back that they cannot come to power through elections because, based on Article 8, the Ba’ath Party gets a pre-set majority in parliament, along with all senior jobs in government, including the presidency, the premiership, and the speakership of parliament.

For any real change to take place, the pre-set quota of the Ba’ath Party has to be canceled — and so does the standing, in fact very existence, of the Regional Command of the Ba’ath Party, which handles all strategy for Syria.

To maneuver around the problem, several solutions were put on the table.  One was to appoint a temporary parliament, like the one of 1971, with the sole task of passing all needed legislation for the reform process, including the lifting of Article 8.  It would include all community leaders and politicians, both from the Ba’ath and the opposition.  Such an appointed parliament, however, would look and sound undemocratic and might be badly perceived by the Syrian public.

The second option was to appoint a parliament without calling it a parliament.  It would be something like a Council of Elders or Consultative Council (majlis shura).  The obstacle to that is that such a body would not have legislative powers that could replace those of parliament.  It would be able to advise, but not issue laws, and certainly not amend the constitution.

A third option was to extend the tenure of the sitting parliament, which ended constitutionally in March.  This parliament, in which the Ba’ath dominates with a clear majority, already had an extension on May 5.  By law, if new elections are not called within 90 days, this parliament gets automatically renewed “until a call for elections takes place.”

Some were pushing for extending the life of this parliament and calling for an extraordinary session on August 2, with the aim of passing all needed reform legislation.  Many argued that this would be too late, given that, by early August, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan would have started, which many predict will be very bloody between the street and the government.

Assad put an end to speculation when he said last Monday that new parliamentary elections would indeed take place next August.

A fourth solution would have been to bypass parliament completely, based on Article 113 of the constitution, which gives the president extraordinary powers to pass legislation — any legislation — “if the country is facing a crisis that is threatening national security.”  Based on Article 113, the president can amend the constitution at will, bypass parliament, and basically do anything he pleases — like amending Article 8, or changing the entire Constitution.

Some believed Assad would go beyond revoking Article 8 in Monday’s speech, whereas realists warned against raising expectations too high.  They argued that Assad might lay the groundwork for such far-reaching reform but would not personally take such a drastic measure.  Assad could still try to resurrect his popularity and confidence, but, to do so, he would have to lead the path towards democracy in Syria, ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in 2014.

Hardliners want to obstruct any reform process, either because they do not fully grasp the danger they face, or because they feel that any real democracy will do away with all the privileges they have enjoyed as Ba’athists for over 40 years.  Their only reasonable argument is their question: what to do with 55,000 employees of the state who are employed by the Ba’ath Party?  If the party loses its supremacy role, none of its organs can be funded by the state.  The party pays wages, after all, through the state, to the Student Union, the Revolutionary Youth Union, the Ba’ath Party newspaper, Ba’ath Party administration officials, clerks, drivers, etc.

Pro-government Rallies in Syria, 21 June 2011

A real pluralist system does not threaten Ba’athists, for now, because they remain the largest party with the highest organizational skills and treasury.  They currently stand at 2.8 million, and even if 2 million drop out if the party no longer rules, they would remain 800,000 — larger than any other in Syria.

In the new party law draft, it must be noted, which was released last week, any party that seeks official recognition needs to ensure 2,000 members at least.  That clearly is exclusive to the Ba’ath — for now.

Ending Ba’ath Party rule would be a blessing in disguise for the Ba’athists.  It would rid them of all opportunists who joined the Ba’ath for professional mobility and incentives and keep a small core group of people who truly believe in the Ba’ath Party’s ideology.  It would also give an impression that the state is serious about reform and about changing from within.

For the millions of independents who are not members of the Ba’ath, and who were never too fond of Ba’ath Party rule, canceling Article 8 would be a dream come true.  Only then would the path towards democracy take its due course.  One-party rule and democracy, after all, do not go hand-in-hand.  The Ba’athists can survive in a multi-party system, as they did in the 1950s, but for them to survive in a one-party system is an option that simply no longer exists for Syria.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian, and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.  This article was first published on his Web site on 22 June 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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