The total population of Syria is around 20 million. According to the Syrian state television, turnout for the referendum vote on a handful of constitutional amendments was 57.4%. That would be an impressive number if it weren’t for the fact that most the country could not vote, for fear of being shot by snipers or blown up by tank shells or living as refugees in Turkey or Jordan.
President Bashar al-Assad is just thrilled that his little referendum won 89% approval. It sets up parliamentary elections in three months, with the opportunity for political parties other than his Baathist Party to run in those elections, and creates a “term limit” of two seven-year presidential terms. Those presidential terms would not be retroactive, so al-Assad could “run” for two fresh seven-year terms after his present term runs out in 2014. It would assure him a total of 28 years in power, unless he manages to amend the constitution for another term. Or, he could amend the constitution so that his eldest son, Hafez, could become president at age 27, the way it was amended so Bashar could become president at 35.
The probability of other political parties being formed is remote, since any and all dissidents who are identified are arrested and tortured or killed. As the referendum was being held, shells continued to rain on Homs, the International Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent were still unable to enter Homs to continue evacuating the ill and injured and retrieve the bodies of the two dead foreign journalists, French photographer Rémi Ochlik and London Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin. The first attempt at rescue resulted in the evacuation of almost two dozen very ill women and children. The second rescue attempt, which would have included the extraction of English journalist Paul Conroy and Frenchwoman Edith Bouvier, was prevented by government security forces. Both Conroy and Bouvier received leg injuries in the shelling that killed Colvin and Ochlik, with Bouvier the more severely injured. In addition to the three Western journalists who were killed and American Anthony Shadid who died of natural causes, there were apparently three Middle Eastern reporters also killed inside Syria, bringing the total number of dead foreign journalists to seven.
The cities of Idlib and Deraa, as well as portions of Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia, have all been under attack. Most of the residents of the region near the Turkish border fled their villages and towns months ago. Thousands are in camps in Turkey. But, facts like those have never kept any dictator from claiming he got a resounding victory in the polls. After all, Saddam Hussein used to claim a 95%-plus vote for himself and Idi Amin would just claim 100% and not bother shading the lie.
The referendum is too little, too late. If Bashar al-Assad had held this vote 10 months ago, when he first proposed it, before he started shelling his own cities and killing over 6,000 men, women and children indiscriminately, it would have meant something. Now, it is just an empty gesture.