Don't Talk Politics

Reporter vainly tries to get an idea of how people view politicians they voted for.

Don't Talk Politics

Reporter vainly tries to get an idea of how people view politicians they voted for.

In April, the Syrian People’s Assembly completed half of its four-year term.

To mark the occasion, I decided as a reporter to gauge the opinion of my compatriots on their political representatives, two years after they had voted for them.

I remember the electoral campaigning phase when the whole city of Damascus teemed with photos of hundreds of candidates – most of whom were totally unfamiliar to me at the time.

For weeks, banners with slogans reading “With your support, we will fight corruption and inflation” hung on all street corners until election day on April 22, 2007.

With several reports emerging recently on parliamentarians implicated in corruption cases, and with the prices of everyday goods and unemployment figures both hiking up, I figured that people would be angry with those they had selected to speak in their name and improve their lives.

I wondered who was going to hold these parliamentarians accountable for their promises.

I had many questions in mind – were people satisfied with the performance of their representatives? Or were they disappointed? Are they keeping an eye on the performance of members of parliament? Do they still remember who they voted for? Did they even vote in the first place?

I decided to turn these questions into an informal survey and address them to dozens of students, workers, farmers and other sections of Syrian society.

I first headed to a series of cafes near a university campus looking for students, thinking first that they might be the most willing to talk.

Yet after approaching several of them, I realised that most had not followed any news relating to parliamentary deputies.

When I asked my questions, I was faced with inquisitive looks as if they were trying to think of what the "correct" answer should be, the one that every “good” citizen was supposed to give.

When I told them they did not have to give their real names, they looked relatively relieved and were more willing to take part in my survey. It was obvious that Syrians feared discussing politics in public.

While most said at first that they had participated in the elections, their subsequent answers or their tense attitudes suggested they were simply lying.

Although there is no law compelling citizens to vote, the truth is that many would never admit that they had not cast their ballots for fear of being labeled an enemy of the nation.

Opposition groups in Syria called for a boycott of the elections, arguing that they were not democratic enough, especially since most of the candidates either belonged to the ruling Ba’ath regime or were close to it – so every citizen who did not vote risked being identified as a dissident.

One student, who refused to talk about political issues altogether, told me his mother had made him swear before she died that he would never discuss or take part in politics.

The funny thing was that many of us were told the same thing by our parents all through our youth.

I left the cafes feeling disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm that students showed for parliament – the institution that supposedly represents them.

The rest of my interviews were similar. Everywhere, people frowned then left when I explained the reasons for my questions.

The results of the survey showed that among those who genuinely voted, very few actually recalled the names of the candidates they had chosen to represent them.

All that one grocery store owner remembered was that he had voted for the candidate who organised a banquet in his neighborhood. He couldn’t recall his name or anything else about him.

In a nearby park, I interviewed a group of farmers who had come to Damascus to seek medical care for members of their family.

One of them was eager to talk to me about his ordeal at the hospital where his son was being treated.

But as soon as he realised that the topic was political, he looked at me with apparent reproach.

“We are just simple farmers. All we care about is securing bread for our children… Nothing is missing from our lives,” he said.
Support our journalists