The regime of Syrian President Assad and its Russian supporters want to hold elections in Syria in April and then again in 18 months’ time. The opposition is skeptical, voicing concerns about a hidden agenda.
On Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry went public with some good news: Violence in Syria has decreased by 80 to 90 percent in the two weeks since a truce came into effect. American and Russian diplomats were also meeting in Amman and Geneva to hold further talks on stabilizing the country. It's hoped these would ease matters as international partners meet for peace talks on Monday in Geneva.
However, Kerry was skeptical about the intentions of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. He said he had made it "very, very clear" that the regime cannot exploit the ceasefire while others are trying in good faith to abide by it. "There is a limit to the patience with respect to that," Kerry said.
The peace talks in Geneva will focus on Syria's political future, far beyond the ceasefire negotiations. According to the UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, talks about a new government, a new constitution and elections are all on the agenda.
Assad's opponents are skeptical in the face of such lofty goals. They say they want to take part in the talks, but they doubt that Assad will actually allow the country to hold free and fair elections.
Syria's main domestic opposition body, the National Coordinating Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC) says the government only wants to improve its negotiating position in Geneva. It says it plans to boycott the parliamentary elections set for mid-April.
But Wael al-Imam, secretary of the governing Baath party, says the election results will show that Syrians "believe in democracy and will use the chance to make their voices heard in a free manner."
Two election dates
Russia has added another suggestion to the discussion about elections: It says that Syrians should vote again in 18 months' time in both presidential and parliamentary elections. The government in Damascus welcomed the suggestion.
The Syrian opposition fears that the government will attempt to use both elections as a fig leaf to rehabilitate its image internationally by portraying itself as a democratic power.
NCCDC spokesman Munther Kaddam described the planned parliamentary elections as a farce. "The government wants to prove that it is the head of democratic, constitutional state. But Syrians know that it is mainly the government that is responsible for the country's destruction," he told online magazine Al-Monitor.
Arab League: 'Hezbollah is a terrorist organization'
Assad is also facing increasing pressure in the Arab world. First the Gulf Cooperation Council and now the Arab League have classified the Shiite Hezbollah as a "terrorist organization." In close cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah has been lending the Assad regime military support for years. The United States and the EU have long viewed the Shiite militia as a terrorist group.
Concerns about election fraud
The Assad regime has much to gain from the legitimacy that would come from democratic elections. The vote is meant to serve as a sign that it is in a position to guarantee security and stability in Syria.
But the opposition says it's too little, too late: Too many Syrians have left the country to make the vote representative of public opinion. Others are concerned about election fraud. Rima Sawah of the Syria Homeland Party is convinced: "Some parties will certainly try to manipulate the election results. But we will make an effort to uncover such attempts."
There is plenty to discuss in Geneva. But if the negotiating partners can't come to an agreement, then the future of the elections is also unclear.