From The Financial Times, April 19 2007, by Ferry Biedermann in Beirut ...
...when even Syria’s government-controlled Tishreen newspaper sees fit to point out a distinct lack of “enthusiasm” for the coming elections, interest must be at rock-bottom....Not mentioned in Tishreen were calls for a boycott by the exiled opposition National Salvation Front, which includes the banned Muslim Brotherhood and former vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam.
...voters will choose from almost 10,000 government-vetted candidates for 250 parliamentary seats, of which 170 are reserved for the ruling Ba’ath party and its allies. The other 80 go to independents, including many rich businessmen and industrialists who in practice do not dare diverge from the government line.
The authorities have cracked down hard on political opponents and human rights activists over the past year. Prominent writers such as Michel Kilo and human rights lawyers such as Anwar Bunni are still in jail, ostensibly for criticising the government’s policies in Lebanon. Dissidents such as Kamal Labwani are still locked up after having had contacts with opposition groups abroad. Some have chosen exile and others have stopped speaking out.
It all seems part of a consolidation of power in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the mantle from his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000. Mr Assad is set to have himself reconfirmed as president later this year in a referendum in which he will be the only candidate.
The young ruler is regarded as having recovered from a wobbly period after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the not altogether voluntary withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005. His relations with important Arab countries and the west nose-dived during this time over his alleged support for militants in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
But in recent months he appears to have mended fences – meeting the Saudi king twice at the recent Arab summit in Riyadh and welcoming an increasing flow of western politicians to Damascus, including the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.