While state media has hailed the elections, many Syrian citizens and observers remain dubious
AMMAN - Turnout was "good" when Syrians in government-held areas made their way to the polls this week to "exert their constitutional right," state news agency SANA reported, praising the country's first local elections since the beginning of the conflict.
In videos shared by state media, lines of people filed their ballots into plastic boxes, beneath wall-to-wall Syrian government flags. "Your participation - it’s a right and a duty," one election poster read.
Participation was so high on Sunday, SANA reported, that voting was extended for five hours.
They put 25 names in front of people, and told them: 'Take these names and vote for them'
- former member of local council in Daraa
But residents speaking to Syria Direct this week were less upbeat when describing the significance of the local elections.
"They put 25 names in front of people, and told them: 'Take these names and vote for them'," one former member of Inkhil's previously opposition-run local council in Daraa told Syria Direct earlier this week, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Abu Ayham al-Hourani, an employee at a now government-run municipality in the Daraa countryside, also suggested that the elections were largely a formality. Hourani asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons.
"The list is unopposed," he said, adding that the "winners were known even before the elections were over".
Even so, the outcome of the elections could provide crucial insights into Syria's future political landscape as a new generation of political and economic elites consolidate their power, and the Syrian government begins to prepare for reconstruction in areas under its control.
A 'link between citizens and the state'?
Since the beginning of the Baath party's rule in 1963, the Syrian government has been noted for its centralised governance structure. When President Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970, he worked to co-opt local community leaders and elites into the administrative apparatus of the government through local and provincial councils.
Local and provincial councils in Syria have, in other words, historically been a means of channelling power from the centre to the periphery, rather than the other way around.
"Local elections in Syria were never important," Fabrice Balanche, a Syria expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Syria Direct.
"Most of the people in the municipality are civil servants, working for the state."
When nationwide protests erupted in 2011, the Syrian government adopted a decentralisation law - otherwise known as Legislative Decree 107 - supposed to devolve political responsibilities from central government to locally elected councils. While the law still enjoys widespread support from both the government and the opposition and forms a key component of UN-led peace talks, no agreement has been reached on its implementation.
Syrians restore shops in the Bab al-Nasr area in old city of Aleppo on 22 April 2018. (AFP)
But now, as the Syrian government reasserts control over much of the country following seven years of war, the 2018 elections could reflect an attempt by Damascus to "consolidate its power networks ... at the lowest level," author and academic Joseph Daher, who has written extensively on reconstruction and pro-government business networks in Syria, said on Wednesday.
Newly elected local and provincial councils are expected to assume more responsibilities than their predecessors. Decree 66 and Law 10 - two controversial pieces of legislation introduced since 2011 allowing the government to expropriate and redevelop areas - effectively delegate much of the responsibility for reconstruction and post-war urban development to local authorities.
The decrees allow for local authorities to establish their own holding companies to assume responsibility for reconstruction. Local authorities in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo have already delegated responsibility for reconstruction and real estate to holding companies.
According to one local government official responsible for organising the elections in Daraa, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, local councils will assume responsibility for reconstruction but will operate "under rules from the Ministry of Local Administration" - referring to the government body that oversees the work of devolved bodies in Syria.
"There is coordination between the ministry and the candidates themselves though," he said, suggesting that council members will provide a crucial "link between the citizens and the state".
According to Daher, however, reconstruction has increasingly become intertwined with a complex web of government-affiliated patronage networks made up of political and economic elites - both old and new.
A new class of powerful figures - including businessmen, militia leaders and politicians - have emerged in recent years, having profited from the war economy
Despite displacing millions and ravaging whole areas of the country, the Syrian conflict has been kind to some. A new class of powerful figures - including businessmen, militia leaders and politicians - have emerged in recent years, having profited in one way or another from both formal and informal war economies.
Perhaps the best known of Syria's war profiteers is Moheddine "Abu Ayman" al-Manfoush, a dairy mogul from the outer suburbs of Damascus who reportedly used high-level connections within the Syrian government to position himself as a key fixer for formal and informal trade on both sides of East Ghouta's years-long siege.
The recent elections mark more than just a return to the old system, Daher said, as this year's contest will be a chance for the Syrian government to formalise relationships with new elites who have proven to be loyal to the government throughout the war, while the Baath party, as part of these various patronage networks and tools of the regime, will also confirm once again its predominance in state "representative" institutions as it did in the last parliamentary elections.
"The key issue is loyalty to the regime," he said.
'I am left to myself'
Despite talk of a government transitioning from war to peace, ordinary Syrians said all they ask is that officials provide basic services, after years of conflict have left the country’s infrastructure in tatters.
"I am sure that nothing new will happen," said 36-year-old Aleppo resident and tailor Abu Mazan.
"I hope that they will take an interest in roads, sanitation and electricity," he added, discussing what he would like to see from newly elected council members. Abu Mazan requested a pseudonym for fear of government repercussions.
Meanwhile in Daraa, a former head of a local opposition-run council is similarly sceptical about the impact newly elected councils will have on civilians' lives.
Fearful of the return of security forces, he worries about the "tightening grip" of the Syrian government.
"No one is able to show opposition or say anything at all," he said.
"I am left to myself."
This article was co-authored by Syria Direct's Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, Alice Al-Maleh, Jodi Brignola, and Mareem al-Hourani.