Baath Party Debates Renewal

Ruling party confronts gap between socialist theory and need to modernise.

Baath Party Debates Renewal

Ruling party confronts gap between socialist theory and need to modernise.

Monday, 29 June, 2009
Syria’s ruling Baath party is considering a renewal process to meet a growing gap between the socialist nature of the regime and the market-oriented reality on the ground, observers say.

Despite previous attempts, the party has so far failed to modernise the structure of the state and bring about political reforms, they say.

The Baath party, which was founded in 1947 based on Arab nationalist and socialist ideology, took power in Syria following a military coup in 1963. Since then, it has had the monopoly of power over all the country’s institutions, including the army and the government. According to the Syrian constitution amended in 1973, the Baath is the “ruling party of the state and of society”.

A prominent member of the Baath announced in a recent unusual interview that there was a serious internal discussion about finding a link between the party’s socialist doctrine and the private sector of Syrian economy.

The aim of the debate was for the Baath to remain the highest authority while incorporating the new liberal economic tendencies, said Haytham Satayhi, the head of the party’s culture and media bureau, in a May 28 interview with the pro-government daily Al-Watan.

The party wanted to find a link between its socialist principles and the private sector in order to encourage local and foreign investments, which would “offer guarantees” to the poorer classes, Satayhi said.

Some members of the party say, however, that the direction that the country has taken in the past few years has alienated them.

According to a former Baath official interviewed by IWPR, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the party has become “embarrassed” to see that its founding principles based on equal social rights and a strong public sector welfare system are being replaced by a more liberal economic system.

The regime in Syria is watching carefully shifts elsewhere in the region, especially since the fall of the Baath regime in neighbouring Iraq following the United States-led invasion in 2003. Syrians want to modernise their system to prove that their Baathist model is the "right" one and can survive regional changes, the same former Baath official said.

Challenged by a fall in oil production and growing unemployment, Syria has adopted many steps in the past few years to shift from being a state-controlled economy into a more market-oriented one.

Several laws were set to open the country to private banks and foreign investments as well as liberalise trade and privatise some industries. A stock market was established earlier this year for the first time in the country’s history.

Some observers say that the Baath party has become dominated by a class of businessmen who have been pushing for the liberalisation of the economy.

Ayman Abdel Nour, a reformist Baath member and the chief editor of the website all4Syria, said that economic laws were being changed to suit “the sons of powerful people and prominent party individuals”.

In a rare interview, Nour - who is based in Dubai - told IWPR that many in the Baath party were frustrated because a few citizens “had private planes and owned billions of dollars” in a country supposed to be socialist.

The Baath party is based on a hierarchal system with the National Command representing the highest authority. This group’s 13 members are appointed by the president of the republic, who approves all recommendations made by the party cadres and remains the ultimate decision-maker.

Most prominent members of the party occupy high-ranking positions in the government or have leading positions in the army or other security organs.

For decades, the party has managed to maintain its grip over the country by using the powerful security services.

Many say that the party needed to modernise its structure because it has become burdened by the size and inefficiency of the state’s institutions.

"Every decision, every appointment of any small employee needs the approval of the Baath party,” said Noor, adding that this process has exhausted the party and led to bureaucracy and corruption.

In his interview with Al-Watan, the prominent Baath member, Satayhi, explained that the party wanted to limit its responsibilities to the role of designing the country’s general policies and monitoring its institutions because it was sinking into “the details of daily administrative life”.

Although in 2003 the Baath national command recommended the separation of the Baath party and the executive power governing the country, the move was never adopted. Further attempts to modernise the system were also foiled.

In 2005, during the party’s last national conference, the national command recommended the establishment of a multi-party political system and the modification of the repressive emergency laws that have governed political and civil life in the country since the 1960s.

But all decisions regarding the renewal of the party were frozen by the leadership because the country was said to be under tremendous western pressure, some observers say.

According to Nour, there was now a revived plan within the Baath to move gradually towards a multi-party system. But he said that the new potential parties would still be led only by businessmen or conservative clerics who vow loyalty to the regime.

Nour said that many members of the Baath have been become weary of the stagnation in the party.

He said that almost 80 per cent of the members have stopped attending the party’s regular meetings because their demands for “modernising the country and opening up to other political forces” are not being heard by the party leadership.

Although the Baath party prides itself in grouping “one million members”, observers say that many join today only to enjoy the privileges it offers.

Being an active member of the party offers individuals the possibility of securing a better job or easier access to education, said a Baath member who works as a journalist at an official newspaper.

The journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that people did not believe any more in the ideals of the party.

"Every meeting we repeat the same talk, the same complaints and the same promises of improving things but all of this is in vain,” he said, adding that he stopped attending the party’s meetings five years ago.
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