In 1982, Charles Krauthammer wrote in The New Republic about the Tirana Index, a scale that evaluated the attendance of ballot results concluding that the higher the vote a government receives in an election, the more tyrannical it is. It would seem to be still a reliable indicator given the latest confirmation, occurred last Wednesday in the 2021 Syrian presidential elections, when authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad, head of the Syrian government since 2000, obtained 95.1 percent of the votes. The result was confirmed by the President of the Syrian Parliament Hammoud Sabbagha and certifies the deeply authoritarian spirit of the government in Damascus. Elected for a new seven-year term, the Ba’ath Party’s leader consolidates more than ever his grip on a country tormented by a decade of civil war.
Huge percentages are common in dictatorial countries and those systems that do not contemplate liberal democracy or free elections. Krauthammer argued that an elected system of government is tyrannical if the vote count is above ninety-five percent of the total number of eligible voters; a traditional autocracy ranges eighty to ninety-five percent. Prominent examples of the Tirana Index and the correlation between close-to-total scores and the tyrannical attitude of the government, were Enver Hoxha – dictator of Albania from 1944 to 1985, winning the election with a staggering 1.627.959 votes to 1 – and Hafez al-Assad – Bashar’s father, who held power in Syria from 1971 to 2000, winning re-election in 1978 with 99.6 percent. With a near uniformity of consensus, these governments testified their authoritarian rule.
During the Cold War, Soviet embassies confirmed that their political leaders in the USSR always won with ninety-nine percent – 99.5 percent, to be precise. Of course, Western observers at the time were very dubious about these numbers and even today do not recognize the 2021 Syrian elections. Assad won a fourth mandate in a row and, thanks to the help of Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Iran through the years, regained control of much of the country devastated by an endless civil war. Today’s Syria is a ravaged nation and in the second decade of the 2000s has gone through a humanitarian crisis, an institutional destabilization, Daesh’s infiltrations, the unresolved problem of the Kurds, the use of nervine gas against the rebels and the collapse of the currency. Ninety percent of the Syrian population lives in poverty according to the UN, inflation is galloping, Lira’s depreciation is today historic.
With an iron fist, Assad – in the crosshairs of international sanctions like Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein before him– has managed to maintain control of a State in pieces and has not been successfully dethroned like the other Mediterranean autocracies since 2011 at the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. Indeed, he has not shared the fate of Libyan dictator Muʿammar Gaddafi, nor that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak, or Tunisian Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Having the Kremlin of his side paid off. According to the UN, before Yemen, Syria was the biggest world’s humanitarian crisis. Assad, an Alawite of the Shiite sect, has silenced the Sunni rebels and ISIS; not enough to prevent a huge exodus of Syrian civilians. Hundreds of thousands of them migrated to Europe, many are crowded in Lebanon, and some have been stopped in Turkey under another authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who still however does not reach Tirana’s Index required dictatorial threshold. Over half a million Syrians died in a decade.
Just to give a semblance of democracy – something that communist regimes in the former Soviet colonies of the Eighties also did – challenging Assad in the 2021 Syrian presidential elections were former minister Abdullah Sallum Abdullah (who got 1.5 percent of the votes) and the head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights Mahmoud Ahmad Marei (3.3 percent). It is not surprising that in the Syrian chaos the elections have been judged both by the opponents to the regime and the international community as not free and not credible. With a participation rate of 76.64 percent – only the zones controlled by Damascus could participate to the vote – 14.3 million people took part in the elections. As another Assad-led seven-year term begins, the Tirana Index remains a warning to the world that the Soviet-like standard of almost unanimous results in elections still certifies the tyranny of the regime in the modern era.
(Published on amedeogasparini.com)