Walid Moallem, the Assad regime’s highly undiplomatic foreign minister, once infamously declared that far from accepting lectures from other countries on freedom and liberty, Syria would itself give lessons to the world on the true meaning of democracy. Quite a grand boast, and the June 3rd 2014 presidential poll regime gave the regime a chance to put its money where its mouth was, to show the world what it had learned over the past three years about running a free and fair election.
Personally, I would have welcomed an education in the democratic process. I may have shouted for huriya (freedom) at demonstrations back in Homs, but a lifetime of living in Arab countries hadn’t really given me the opportunity to experience the concept firsthand. Indeed, it wasn’t until the March 2014 Turkish mayoral and municipal elections, that I first witnessed a society engaging in that which I had wanted so badly for my own country. Sadly, the experience left me feeling somewhat like a kid looking into a sumptuous candy store while his Turkish friends filled their pockets with goodies.
Give the world lessons in democracy? Heck, alot of the crap that’s accepted in Syrian elections would have been highly illegal in a Turkish vote. Far from being a paragon of the democratic process and an example unto other nations on how to hold an election, the Syrian presidential poll wouldn’t have passed muster in any self respecting school council ballot.
My first experience with electioneering Turkey-style was the day I came home and found a pamphlet wedged in the door. It was a bit of campaign material from a political party I’d never heard of. It saddened me that their resources had been wasted on a person who couldn’t vote, but I made sure to place it on the building’s door for the benefit of my voting-privileged neighbors. In the weeks to come, many more such pamphlets from a bewildering number of political parties would find their way to our doors, my neighborhood apparently being a well contested one.
And it showed. Out in the streets, banners and posters for numerous candidates from across the political spectrum would be hung in every conceivable place that banners and posters could be hung from. After the monotony of Bashar’s less than impressive likeness on almost every wall in Tartous, it was quite astonishing to experience an atmosphere where politicians and their parties had to actually compete for attention.
Turkish election offices were a sight to behold, draped in their party’s respective colors, with energetic volunteers in matching jackets and caps. As tempting as it was to interact more closely with these election workers, prudence demanded that I have as little direct contact as possible with anything to do with electioneering in Turkey. For weeks in the run-up to the day of the vote, Syrians on social media had been imploring each other not to be seen as being partisan to any political party in Turkey; the perception in Egypt that Syrian refugees had been pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters had done much to make that country very unwelcoming to Syrians after President Mohamed Sisi was overthrown in a military coup (see what I did there).
About a week after the pamphlets started appearing, I began to hear the sound of election slogans and music blaring very loudly from roving election-vans (noise-ordinance apparently not being an issue at election time). I loved hearing those vans. I couldn’t understand much of what was coming through their loudspeakers, and Turkish political parties seemed to prefer their songs to be somewhat militaristic, but I loved the sound they made none the less. And I had no patience whatsoever for acquaintances who complained about the “noise” the vans were making.
Noise? Try living in Syria or Lebanon and see the kind of “noise” people of different political persuasions make when they have a go at each other. In Lebanon, massive gunfire is customary when one’s favored warlord makes a speech. And I had fled Syria because there never had been a civil way to settle one’s grievances with the state. “Noise”. Those vans weren’t a disturbance, to me their music and sounds symbolized the miracle of a functioning democracy in the Middle East, and if that was the price to pay for the right to cast one’s vote, then by God maybe people should be thankful they lived in a society where such vans are allowed to put whatever darn music and slogans they want.
Yep, I may not have been able to vote, but I had some very strong opinions about the vans.
The very first election advertisement I saw was an engaging piece produced by the ruling AKP. It featured a massive Turkish flag fluttering on a pole high above a city landscape. A sinister looking individual cuts the support cables, and the flag falls slowly downwards. As the shadow of the flag descends over the city, Turks of all ages and diverse professions rally together to hoist it up again. Love for the nation and social harmony triumph, and the flag once again flies strongly above the city. It was a very slick advertisement, very well produced.
And, apparently, also quite illegal under Turkey’s election regulations, which forbade the use of the national flag by political parties for electioneering purposes. The advertisement was pulled from television spots the same day it aired.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the Syria regime could have possibly carried out a free and fair election under the same rule. For four decades, the Assad family had treated the Syrian flag as pretty much their own personal coat of arms, and had exploited it at every opportunity for propaganda purposes. No poster of Bashar could have been complete without a Syrian flag photoshoped into the background.
In fact, there were many aspects of Syrian “elections” that would have been impossible under Turkish regulations. The day before the vote, I was shocked to find the streets of Istanbul emptied of every banner and poster. All the party volunteers had gone, as were my beloved election vans. As it turned out, on the eve of a vote Turkish rules required that all electioneering activity be halted. The efficiency with which this regulation was implemented was quite astonishing. I had been in Tartous during the parliamentary “elections”, and I remember the banners and posters hanging around neglected for months after the vote. In Syria, “electioneering” wouldn’t just continue well into the day of the vote; Bashar’s supporters would be screaming his name right inside the polling station.
The day of the voting in Turkey provided even more contrasts with how things would be done three months later in Syria. The regime would claim afterwards that a quarter of a million voters had turned up at the embassy in Beirut to cast their ballots. In Turkey, they would have fired the imbecile election officials who tried to cram a quarter of a million “voters” into one polling station. And while voting in Turkey was always anonymous, no such anonymity was afforded to Syrian voters. Ballots in Syria would be marked and deposited in open sight of every mukhabarat agent and election official, all of whom would inevitably be sporting pro-Assad paraphernalia.
As it would turn out, so liberal were Syrian rules regarding voting that one didn’t even need to put in an appearance at the polling stations to cast a vote. While in Turkey strict checks were made of voting registers and IDs, Syria would be the first country in the world to pioneer the use of voting via Whatsapp messages; all one had to do was message a picture of an ID card to an election official, and a ballot would be filled in that person’s name (no need to specify which candidate the ballot was to be made out to). In any other country, that would have counted as election fraud. The regime apparently considered this method of voting to be one of the lessons it was so magnanimously sharing with other less enlightened countries on the rocky road to democracy.
The efficiency and resilience of a country’s voting system is ultimately tested not when things go well, but on how that system deals with issues during the process. Every election in history has experienced problems at some point, and Turkey’s municipal and mayoral races would see issues in some areas with spoiled ballots, which would result in recounts of the tallies for days after the first results. And some areas would experience the not-so-small matter of electricity blackouts just as counting got underway.
The counting. There is a special type of thrill in watching election results start to come in, a kind of excitement that I personally couldn’t remember experiencing anytime before. I would eagerly refresh the Internet page results every 30 seconds for the latest results in Istanbul. At one point, it looked like the opposition parties would have a clean sweep of the mayoral races in the three largest cities, and the changing fortunes of each party as the night went on was amazing to watch. When a city or neighborhood was declared for a party, that party’s supporters felt the very well earned triumphant elation of winning a hard fought battle. I’m positive few political candidates who have experienced the thrill of winning a legitimate election would have ever traded the experience for Assad’s kind of assured,pre-determined-down-to-the-second-decimal-point “victory”.
Eventually, the blackouts were officially blamed on a cat getting into an electric transformer. Turks on social media had alot of fun with jokes about the “Kedi Lobisi”, the sinister cat lobby that had tried to derail the elections. The highlight of my week was the very serious statement on the part of the Turkish Union of Electrical Engineers, to the effect that it was impossible for a cat to get into an electric transformer and cause a blackout. Turkey, one can’t help but love it.
Three months later, there would of course be nothing funny about the charade of an election held in Syria. It was the typical Assad-orchestrated made-for-TV spectacle that Syrians had seen played out time and again for over forty years, and it would neither enhance the regime’s position or solve the country’s conflict. It was a lesson the Assad family had yet again failed to learn.
But for me personally, watching the Turkish elections would be an education I would never forget, and seeing a democracy in action only made me want it that much more for my own society. Someday, the war in Syria will be over, and Syrians will have the luxury of complaining about the loud election-vans blaring out music and slogans.
And I’ll be there to remind them of what it was like before we had the vans.