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Yes, Assad won reelection last week. But Syria’s elections serve another purpose.

Elections can be a dictator’s way of saying who’s in charge

- May 31, 2021

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife cast their ballots in the May 26 presidential election in the town of Douma, a suburb of the capital city of Damascus. The location was not coincidental — Assad’s forces lost control of Douma in 2012 and regained it only after years of bombings, a starvation siege and the deployment of chemical weapons in April 2018 finally subdued the city.

Voting in Douma sent a specific message to Syrians — one of reconquest and domination. The regime made no attempt to present the election as free and fair, further stressing its ability to lie and force others to parrot the lie. Regime loyalists documented themselves voting multiple times, and the regime’s official results show more voters for Assad than the number of residents in regime-held areas.

In an authoritarian regime like Syria’s, when the falsification of the results takes place out in the open, elections project the regime’s ability to compel compliance. Elections serve the interests of the regime, signaling to opponents that resistance is futile, encouraging its loyalists and creating a sense that the regime enjoys greater support than it actually does.

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Syria’s election came in the midst of deep economic crisis

The Syrian lira lost 57 percent of its value in one year, prices of basic goods increased by 313 percent and Syrians faced crippling shortages of subsidized goods such as bread and fuel. Interviews I’ve conducted with residents of all of Syria’s governorates indicate that this collapse in living standards further narrowed the regime’s support base. Many Syrians who once saw the regime as an anchor of stability now see the crushing poverty and growing predation of those close to the regime.

This crisis probably prompted the regime to invest much greater efforts to mobilize voters and attendees of pro-regime rallies this time compared with the two previous elections held since the Syrian crisis began. In all of these elections, government employees and students were compelled to vote at the threat of being fired or dismissed from university.

Government coercion has now expanded into uncharted territory. Interviews I’ve conducted with Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo and Hama indicate that the secret police forced shop owners to print and hang pro-Assad posters by threatening to seal their shops with wax. Citizens are forced to donate to the printing costs of such posters, too.

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Interviews I’ve conducted with residents of regime-held areas ahead of the elections show that the secret police warned residents of formerly rebel-held areas in northern Homs and Qalamoun that they may be arrested if they do not vote. Residents said the regime also has made voting a condition for distribution of subsidized bread in Homs — as well as World Food Program aid baskets to the poor in the southern districts of Damascus and the displaced in the city of Aleppo.

Different messages target different audiences

What do the streets filled with Assad’s posters and long lines at polling places — along with the predetermined outcome — set out to achieve? This display of strength conveys different messages to different audiences. To Assad’s diminishing base, the display of strength is reassuring, demonstrating to them that they are backing the side that has power.

Participants often share images of rallies and cheer on the Assad regime using pro-regime Facebook groups, for instance. This signaling is particularly needed now amid the government’s inability to provide even the most basic of services.

For the wider Syrian public, these displays of voter support also instill the belief that anti-regime mobilization is pointless, by conveying two messages: that the regime is more popular than it actually is; and in addition, or alternatively, that the regime may be unpopular and unable to change the beliefs of the population but, through its dominance, is able to create a norm of compliance among Syrians.

For those not supportive of the regime, elections create a sense of pluralistic ignorance, a phenomenon when individuals comply with a norm but privately reject it, while assuming that others’ compliance is reflective of their private attitudes. This type of obedience despite one’s personal preference is widespread in authoritarian countries. Political scientists call this “preference falsification” — this type of coercion of citizens creates a sense that the regime is more popular than it actually is, to make revolutions appear impossible.

Elections offer a way to prove loyalty

My research found that Syria’s “loyalist” communities, which are largely religious minorities, reveal clues about how elections reinforce political beliefs. Interviews with the politically dominant Alawi sect indicate that while many privately profess opposition to the regime, they are perceived by outsiders, and also members of the sect itself, to be loyal to Assad.

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Election-related displays of loyalty also target Syrians who realize that the regime is unpopular. The goal is to exact public submission, reinforcing within regime opponents the understanding that the societal norm is obedience — and that mobilization against the regime is therefore futile. These efforts don’t appear to attempt to change the beliefs of Syrians taking part in elections or public activities that profess loyalty to Assad. Organizers notify participants that attendance is mandatory, and at times even admit privately that they themselves don’t want to attend but reinforce that all have to do so. Instead, in line with the findings of political psychologists, these displays of faux loyalty aim to inculcate beliefs about norms: People comply because the prevalent norm is fearful obedience to an all-powerful regime.

The message of obedience is useful in discouraging possible opposition, by repeatedly proving to Syrians that almost everyone is willing to participate in government-sponsored propaganda. Thus, the Assad regime signals to its supporters that they are not alone, raising their morale. To potential opponents, the regime proves that society is obeying, forcing even those who think of not complying to participate in the charade — or at least avoid mobilizing against the regime. For Syrians, it creates an atmosphere of “sustained surrender” of the population to the dictatorship — a clear message of social control.

Editor’s note: A previous version gave the incorrect date for the May 2021 election. We regret the editing error.

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Elizabeth Tsurkov is a PhD candidate at Princeton’s Politics Department and a nonresident fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.