IN September 2012, I arrived at my university accommodation in St Andrews from war-torn Syria. Hardly, then, did I expect that I would be voting as a British citizen in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021.

Over the eight years I have spent living and working in Scotland, I have witnessed people going to vote for the Scottish referendum in 2014, Brexit in 2020, and three major UK general elections. I heard the debates, listened to the news and discussed with my students issues related to voting behaviour, the pros and cons of democracy, and why Brexit took place. Yet, during those eight years, I was never able to participate in any of these major electoral events in the history of the UK. I have always thought that people here have taken for granted their right to vote and make their choice freely without censorship or pressure from the government. I could not stop myself comparing what it is like to vote in Syria and what it is like to vote under authoritarianism in comparison to voting under democracy.

I was born in Syria in the 1980s. I have lived under an authoritarian regime almost all my life. This meant that public criticism of the government and its policies could endanger your life. I grew up hearing stories from my dad about people being arrested and prosecuted by the secret police (Mukhabarat) for telling a joke about the president.

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Parliamentary and presidential elections are still held regularly in Syria according to the Syrian constitution. Often, these elections are part of a facade to show that the regime follows the items of the constitution. State TV channels were the only media outlets that Syrians had until the late 1990s and I remember how the channels would stop broadcasting everything, including children’s cartoons, in order to broadcast national songs that would glorify the president, the ruling Ba’ath Party and the Syrian nation.

Syria has three types of elections. The presidential elections are held every seven years and the parliamentary and local council elections are held every four years. Local council elections are not as significant as the first two types of elections. As a government employee, choosing not to vote is not an option. Voting is considered a national duty and government employees are usually encouraged by their supervisors to go to the polling stations. As a government employee, if you show an objection to taking part in the voting process, you could face arrest and interrogation by the notorious Syrian security services, with the accusation of weakening the national unity in the country.

In the parliamentary elections, the government will provide the electorate with a list that already contains names chosen and vetted by the security apparatus. They are usually members of the ruling Ba’ath Party. There is no way for a voter to reject these names. You are asked to fill in the rest of the list with a couple of names of people who are considered independent and do not have a party affiliation.

Usually, these would be businessmen, tribal leaders or other community figures who have strong links with the government institutions. As a voter, you do not really care much about their manifesto or what they promise people in their speeches. You would tend to vote for an independent if you think that one of them could bring about change in your local constituency. Often, these representatives have no real power to bring about any change.

Syrians usually call a presidential election a “national wedding”. It is referred to as a wedding because Syrians are supposed to attend large public gatherings where people perform the folklore dance called the Dabkeh to the sounds of national songs. Schools, government institutions and public bodies organise public marches where Syrians are expected to chant slogans in which they confirm that the current president is their only choice.

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Usually, these elections take the form of a referendum where people go to vote for one candidate, always an al-Assad, initially the father and later his son, to either stay as the president or leave office. I remember being asked by my manager at work to go to the polling station and vote for the president. When I got there, there were a few people surrounding the ballot box and watching over the voter’s choice. I remember seeing someone who was piercing his finger and then using his bleeding finger to mark “yes” as his vote for the president. People who act in this way are usually called hypocrites by other Syrians. They use the presidential elections to show their close affiliation with the regime in order to obtain material benefits in return, such as a promotion at work or employment in the public sector.

REMEMBERING all of the above makes me realise how privileged I am to be able to vote, for the first time in my life, under a democratic system when there are many of my fellow Syrians who still live under grim authoritarianism.

The whole experience of voting for me for the first time in Scotland seems far more complex than in Syria. As soon as I obtained my citizenship, I started thinking about voting and being able to have a say in the affairs of the country that I live in.

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One of the first things I did was register to vote. Why do I need to register to vote? Does the government here want to know who I voted for? Surely, this is not the case. This is not Syria. I should not worry about registering to vote. There must be another purpose for this procedure, I told myself. A couple of months before the date of the elections, I start getting all these colourful leaflets from the candidates in my constituency. I got excited and started reading their manifestos and what they plan to do to help improve our area. I agree with many of their points and disagree with others. I read another leaflet. Again, I find some points convincing and others not. A lot of what is in the leaflets this year is about recovering from the impact of the pandemic. I worry about who I am going to vote for. I do more research on parties and candidates under the dynamics of elections. I listen to the news and some podcasts with the hope that I will have more insights about the whole process.

I finally get my polling letter which states exactly where I am going to vote. I get more excited but I panic because I think that I have not made up my mind yet. Perhaps, if I had the right to vote when I was a refugee in 2012, I would have already become used to the whole process.

I look at my fellow Syrians around the world and feel happy for them, as they will finally have a say in the political and social processes of the countries that they have become citizens of.

But I also feel sad that many of those who seek freedom and dignity have to continue living stripped of their right to choose their representatives freely.

Haian Dukhan is a postdoctoral fellow of the Central European University and a fellow of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews. He has taught politics and international relations at the universities of St Andrews, Leicester and Edinburgh. His most recent book is State And Tribes In Syria: Informal Alliances And Conflict Patterns, published by Routledge