Soldiers at the normally dour border crossing between Lebanon and Syria were dabka circle dancing and passing out candy. The streets of the Syrian capital were lined with tents stocked with tea and shawarma sandwiches. Billboards Proclaimed: We Believe in Freedom, We Believe in History, We Believe in You. Syrian state television blared old fashioned anthems of praise: “With unlimited love, people are waiting for their promised hero.”
Having worked itself up into millennial fervor, Syria voted today in a national referendum on whether or not President Bashar Al Assad should have a second seven year term as the unchallenged leader of this country. With the outcome of the referendum certain, the day was less of a popularity contest then a massive holiday in this security state’s true religion: the cult of personality.
Syrian is awash in Bashar posters of all shapes and sizes: Bashar the military man, Bashar the technocrat, Bashar the family man. Bashar covered T-shirts. Bashar covered cars. Bashar covered buildings. When the 41 year-old Bashar first came to power, he and his modern, Westernized wife were said to be uncomfortable with the Noble Leader-style adulation that surrounded his late father, Hafez Al Assad, the founder of the dynasty. Apparently the second generation is embarrassed no more.
For all the effort put into this referendum, you might actually think that something was at stake. But the only suspense is what the grandiose margin of victory will be. Last time in 2000, Bashar won by a whopping 97.3 percent. So will Bashar better his personal best? One hundred percent is a little too cute even for Syria. I’m betting on 99.9.
Needless to say, electoral oversight is overlooked in Syria. Anyone with any form of ID — not necessarily even Syrian — could vote early and often at any and every polling place. One eager young election worker obliged my curiosity by voting with her bloody fingerprint — a common practice among the true believers or the unlettered — for at least the second time that day. Though it may be shocking — shocking, you say — that a Middle East strongman might interpret the popular will so broadly, it’s best to think of today’s election not as, well, an election, but rather as a public performance, a display of the the regime’s bravado and defiance.
Accused by the United States of supporting terrorism in Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, Assad’s regime has so far fought off the Bush Administrations attempt to isolate it. But the stakes are about to get higher. At the urging of the US and France, the UN Security Council will probably soon set up a tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of Lebanon former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Such a tribunal could have the power to force defendants and witness to appear in court. So far UN investigators have focused on leading members of the Assad regime.
Once the results of today’s referendum are announced, Bashar will probably behave like a king of old, declaring a week-long holiday, issuing pardons, reshuffling his ministers. And when that’s done, Syria will be as ready as it ever will– for war, for peace, for judgment.