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Writing a New Syrian Constitution

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Ask anybody in the Syrian opposition or intelligentsia about political change in Syria, and they would say that Article 8 of the constitution needs to be removed immediately in order for people to start taking the government's reform promises seriously.

That controversial article, penned in 1973, designates the Baath Party as "leader of state and society". It also establishes the National Progressive Front (NPF), a parliamentary coalition of socialist parties under the umbrella of the Baath.

Article 8 was inserted into the Syrian constitution exactly 10 years after the Baathists came to power and ever since then activists have been lobbying for its removal. That dream is now more of a reality than ever before as authorities are preparing for a Constitutional Assembly that would draft a new legal document for Syria -- one that omits Article 8.

Article 8 alone, however, is not the only problem with Syria's existing constitution. There are entire chunks in the constitution authored in rosy socialist language that also need to be eliminated.

That language, about western imperialism and a classless society, was acceptable and indeed popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it resonates badly with a rising generation of young Syrians who are fed up with almost 50 years of Baath Party rule.

Twelve articles also need to be cut out, which speak of a socialist state, a socialist economy, a socialist education system, and an 'ideological army' based on Baath Party thought. Among the proposed changes -- put forth by a team of Syrian legal experts earlier last summer -- is empowering the premiership at the expense of the presidency, thereby reducing certain presidential powers in order to bring forth a strong and capable prime minister.

All prime ministers since 1970 have had strong executive powers but no political duties, something that will change, with Syria's new constitution. A new prime minister would have to be named by parliament, rather than the president, and can only be removed by a vote of no-confidence by parliament. Under the current system, the president of the republic can appoint and dismiss prime ministers at will, without resorting to parliament.

Additionally, based on Article 8, the current constitution says that the Baath Party's regional command gets to name a presidential candidate who is then voted upon through a popular referendum. If Article 8 goes, then so does the entire role of the regional command, changing the mechanism for electing a new president once President Bashar Al Assad's tenure ends in 2014.

One option is to elect a president through parliament, as was the case in the 1940s and 1950s, who would need a third plus one vote in the chamber. The last time that happened was back in December 1962 when Syria's last pre-Baath civilian president, Nazem Al Qudsi, was elected to office.

Other proposed changes are reducing the term of the president, down from 7 to 4-5 years, and limiting his tenure to two terms only. Again, it used to be four years in the past but was extended to seven years in 1970. At one point, a president could not stay in power for more than one round; where lawmakers argued that during his final year in office, any incumbent would focus more on re-election than on catering to the needs of the nation.

To avoid that, incumbents had to leave office, campaign for re-election as private citizens, and then return to office once four years had passed. That clause, inserted by president Hashim Al Atasi in Syria's first constitution in 1928, was changed by president Shukri Al Quwatli in 1947, who amended the constitution to enable a sitting president to stay in power for two consecutive rounds with no interruption.

When disturbances began in Syria in March, authorities announced a series of measures aimed at combating public discontent, like raising wages and formulating a new constitution that cancels Article 8.

Previously, any such proposed changes would have sounded ludicrous -- in fact heretical -- for the Baathists. For years, they had curtly refused touching Article 8, arguing that it "preserves secularism of the state (given that the party is a secular one) and prevents Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, from coming to power."

That resistance still stands, but it has slowly eroded as angry young Syrians have taken to the streets almost daily for six months now, demanding political and economic change.

A hard reality is beginning to sink into the upper echelons of power in Damascus; that the Baath Party can no longer survive with the same regime, methods, tools and personalities that it used for nearly 50 years.

The Baathists need to dismantle their monopoly on power at will, because they are going to have to do so anyhow under increased pressure from the angry Syrian street. At any rate, Baath Party control -- if not mandated by a true democracy -- cannot survive in a new Syria. Article 8 and a democracy -- which is the ultimate goal-- can never go hand in hand.

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Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus, Syria. This article appeared in Gulf News on September 12, 2011 entitled, "Baathists must end monopoly on power."