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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

SYRIA: New law to free up municipal elections

DAMASCUS, 28 September 2005 (IRIN) - A new law for local administration will allow Syrians in the next local elections to elect candidates of their choosing for the first time ever, according to government officials.

Plans for the new law, explained Syrian Minister of Local Administration Hilal Attrash, will allow the 15,000 members of the country’s municipal councils to be freely elected in 2007.

Under the previous election law, Syrians voted for candidates from a list set by the National Progressive Front (NPF), the ruling coalition of parties overwhelmingly dominated by the Ba’ath Party, which has ruled since 1963.

The old law, introduced eight years after the Ba’ath took power in Syria, has served to consolidate the party’s control over the country, ensuring local councils remained tied to the central power in Damascus.

Attrash said that the new law is a natural development of a continued process of capacity building in the human resources of the local councils.

“In the 2003 local election we found that we had more capable staff and a greater participation of women, but for demographic reasons we needed to apply the NPF list,” said Attrash, explaining that closed lists were previously applied to local elections “to ensure a fixed quota of women, engineers, workers and farmers entered local government”.

The move to allow greater political freedom in local elections follows the recommendation at the Ba’ath Party conference in June to introduce a Political Parties Law to license independent political parties for the first time since Syria came under Ba’ath rule.

“Now we have taken the decision to have a free and open list according to the development of Syrian society,” Attrash said. The new law would also outlaw any political party based on religion or ethnicity.

Under the new law, it would be possible for a free list local election to return a Kurdish-dominated local council seeking to pursue local Kurdish interests. Would the government in Damascus guarantee not to interfere in the powers it had delegated?

“There will be no interference,” said Attrash. “They will have their free will and it will be the council members who will observe their practise. There will be no need for the state to interfere. The councils will be judged by their efficiency and deeds, not by their ethnic background.”

Syria has 14 governorates, 107 towns and 2,480 villages. The population of these units elect 15,029 representatives for the respective councils. Those eager for democratic reform in Syria look at the local administration elections as a warm up exercise for the parliamentary elections, which elects 250 MPs, in 2007.

Attrash said the introduction of the free list elections would also mean city council chiefs would no longer be appointed by the Ba’ath Party, whose position of being the “leading party in state and society” is written into Article 8 of Syria’s constitution, but would “be elected by the local council members themselves”.

Local governors will continue to be appointed by presidential decree.
The move to introduce a free list for candidates is to be accompanied by a re-drawing of the local election map and the promise of decentralised power to give local authorities more control over their budgets.

“The new project will focus on developing good governance of local administrations, changing and reforming administrative plans, studying the public services and changing the local administration law,” said Attrash. “By the old law the smallest administrative unit was a village of more than 5,000 people. The new law will consider a much smaller unit.

“The smallest unit will be called the farm and will not be more than 200 people. The aim is to give the smallest unit of the electorate a fair representation. The new law will pave the way to delegate more authority to the smallest administrative unit and to decentralise power,” he said.

Attrash outlined a project to allow the budgets of local administrations to be raised, according to the capabilities of each local council.

“At the moment municipality budgets are very small, but now we are working on a project with the European Commission and the Syrian municipalities to raise the capability of Syrian municipalities’ staff,” he said. “The plan is to raise the local councils’ budgets in relation to the development of the capability of staff to spend those budgets wisely.”

Themes: (IRIN) Governance

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