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Unrest-hit Syria votes on new constitution

DAMASCUS | AFP - February 26, 2012, 09h18
DAMASCUS : Syrians search for their names on the registered voters' list before casting their vote on a new constitution at a polling station in Damascus on February 26, 2012. Syrians were called to the polls to vote on a new constitution in the face of opposition calls for a boycott and in the thick of deadly violence that Washington said made the exercise "laughable." - Photo: AFP
Syrians vote Sunday on a new constitution that could theoretically end the five decades of one-party rule that sparked protests last year which have taken the country to the verge of civil war.
Earlier this month, President Bashar al-Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March, with the resulting violence killing more than 7,600 people, monitors say.

But the referendum, which opposition forces have called to boycott, has failed to ease global pressure on Assad, with the United States calling it “laughable.”

More than 14 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations, which will open for 12 hours at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).

But with many parts of the country reeling under a campaign to crush the protests, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it is unclear how the ballot can prove to be convincing.

The new constitution, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes Assad’s Baath party “the head of state and society.”

That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.

Instead, the new political system would be based on “pluralism,” although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.

Al-Baath, the ruling party’s newspaper, said in an editorial this week that this “does not represent a loss for the party and just keeps up with political and social evolution.”

While the new text drops all references to Syria being a socialist state, Article 60 maintains that half the deputies must be “workers and farmers.”

Under the new charter, the president would maintain his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the prime minister and government and, in some cases, could veto legislation.

Another provision that has alerted secular groups and religious minorities is Article 3, which stipulates the president should be a Muslim, and that “Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.”

Sunni Muslims account for 75 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million, with the rest made up of minorities, including 12 percent for the Alawite community that Assad hails from and a sizeable Christian minority.

Article 88 states that the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state, set for 2014.

This means that Assad could theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.

And Syria specialist Thomas Pierret has said that regardless of the changes, the type of political system is of little relevance in a country “dominated by the intelligence service.”

“Nothing indicates that this would change under the current regime,” said Pierret, lecturer on Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh.
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