The President and the Cabinet
The president is elected for a seven-year term by universal suffrage. A candidate to the office must be a Syrian Arab Muslim, at least forty years of age, proposed by the Baath Party, and nominated by the People's Council. The nominee is submitted to a national referendum. To be elected, the candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes cast. If not, a new candidate must be selected by the Baath Party for formal nomination by the People's Council.
The Constitution states that in the case of the president's temporary disablement, the vice president becomes acting president. However, in 1982 Assad named three vice presidents-- Foreign Minister Abd al Halim Khaddam, Rifaat al Assad, and Baath Party deputy director Zuhayr Mashariqa--but none of the three was specifically designated as successor. If the presidency falls vacant by resignation or death, a referendum must be held within ninety days to elect a new president. Under certain circumstances, the prime minister may exercise presidential functions for up to ninety days.
The president cannot be removed except for high treason. Impeachment proceedings may be initiated through a petition signed by one-third of the members of the People's Council voting openly or by a petition of two-thirds of the council members voting at a special closed session. The president can be tried only by the High Constitutional Court, of which he is a member.
The president is both the head of state and the chief executive officer of the government. He is vested with sweeping powers that may be delegated, at his sole discretion, to his vice presidents. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces. He appoints and dismisses the prime minister and other members of the Council of Ministers (the cabinet) and military officers.
Apart from executive authority relating to a wide range of governmental functions including foreign affairs, the president has the right to dissolve the People's Council, in which case a new council must be elected within ninety days from the date of dissolution. He may also exercise legislative power when the council is in recess, provided that all legislative acts promulgated by him are submitted to the legislature for approval at its first subsequent session. The Constitution also empowers the president to preempt legislative power even while the People's Council is in session "in case of absolute need relating to national security." It states, however, that all presidential decrees must be presented to the legislature for its endorsement. The council may, by a two-thirds vote, amend or rescind presidential decrees, provided that the two-thirds majority constitutes no fewer than the absolute majority of the council membership. The council's power to amend or nullify a presidential decree is only nominal, inasmuch as the council's action, whether for amendment or abrogation, is not to have a "retroactive effect."
Under the Constitution, presidential authority extends also to the broadly phrased "right to submit to popular referendum important matters relating to the higher interests of the country." However, the question of what constitutes "higher interests" is left undefined. The results of such a referendum are "binding and executory with effect from the date of their promulgation" by the president. The presidential emergency power granted under Article 113 provides a mandate that is beyond any legal challenge: "In case of grave danger threatening national unity or the security and independence of the national territory or impeding the government's exercise of its constitutional prerogatives, the President of the Republic has the right to take appropriate emergency measures." This article has been in effect since the late 1960s.
The Council of Ministers, headed by the prime minister, is responsible to the president and serves collectively as the executive and administrative arm of the president and of the state. A cabinet member can also be a member of the People's Council and, if so, is not answerable to the legislature for his official conduct while acting as a cabinet member.
As of 1987, the Council of Ministers had last been reshuffled in April 1985. The council was headed by Prime Minister Abd ar Rauf al Kassim, who had served as prime minister since 1980, and three deputy prime ministers, who also held the portfolios of defense, services, and economic affairs. Ministers were in charge of the following portfolios: agriculture and agrarian reform, communications, construction, culture and national guidance, defense, economy and foreign trade, education, electricity, finance, foreign affairs, health, higher education, housing and utilities, industry, information, interior, irrigation, justice, local administration, oil and mineral wealth, religious trusts (waqfs), social affairs and labor, supply and internal trade, tourism, and transportation. In addition, the Council of Ministers included ministers of state for cabinet affairs, foreign affairs, planning affairs, People's Council affairs, and presidential affairs and three newly elected ministers of state without portfolio.
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