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Elections in a time of civil war: America 150 years ago, and Syria today

Caleb Maupin is a political analyst from New York City and is an activist with the International Action Center and Workers World Party. He has worked against police brutality and mass incarceration.

Published time: April 25, 2014 10:50
A member of the Civil Defence and a resident pass a fire at a site hit by what activists said were barrel bombs dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo's al-Shaar district April 24, 2014.  (Reuters/Hosam Katan)

​Syria is scheduled to hold its presidential elections on June 3. The American media is mocking the idea of an election being held during a civil war that has left over 100,000 died and have become refugees.

The media is prepared to discount the overwhelmingly expected election result, that Bashar Assad will be re-elected.

Interestingly, the US commentators seem to be unfamiliar with this history of their own country.

One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1864, the United States held a presidential election, three years into a bloody civil war. Abraham Lincoln was leading the United States in a battle against a ruthless domestic insurgency. Lincoln, a member of the newly-formed Republican Party, had been elected on a program of containing and halting the expansion of slavery. In 1861, the wealthy slave owners of the southern US took up arms against the federal government, in the hopes of preserving their ownership over millions of African-Americans they considered to be their "private property."

In the process of the war, Lincoln was forced to reluctantly abolish slavery, first with the Emancipation Proclamation, and eventually Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Civil War was really the Second American revolution, completely changing the United States economic set-up. The industrial capitalists of the Northern United States, with the support of labor unions, beloved anti-slavery agitators such as Frederick Douglas, and armed slave rebels such as Harriet Tubman, smashed the slavocracy. In the process 750,000 soldiers were killed, while the number of civilians killed is still highly disputed. Both sides accused each other of brutal war crimes, including using starvation as a weapon, torture and the murder of civilians.

While most of the Northern United States was in support of the US elected government against the Southern Slave Holding Confederacy, New York City was a hotbed pro-slavery sentiment because Wall Street, now the center of the world capitalist system, was making millions of dollars off of slavery-related financial enterprises. Many wealthy British capitalists and prominent politicians, such as William Gladstone, supported the slave-holding insurgents as well. British industries saw the Southern slave plantations as a source of cheap cotton and other materials.

In New York City, the most popular Republican Party newspaper was known as The New York Tribune. The London-based European correspondent of the Tribune was Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto, and leader of the International Workingmen's Association. Karl Marx wrote: "The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world."

Young men recruited into the US army would sing "John Brown's Body," a song dedicated to the charismatic, anti-slavery militant, who was hanged after an attempted uprising at Harper's Ferry. Among the leaders of the Army Lincoln used to smash the slavocracy were many open, unapologetic Communists. Brigadier-General Joseph Wedemeyer, Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, Brigadier-General August Willich, and Colonel Richard Hinton were not even born in the United States, but felt that in order be true to their Communist beliefs, they needed to enlist in the battle against slavery. They served as high-ranking leaders of the United States military during the battle against the southern slave owners, and were also open supporters of Karl Marx and the ideology of Communism.

A rebel fighter carries an anti-tank weapon as he heads with his fellow fighters towards their positions in the Armenian Christian town of Kasab April 23, 2014. (Reuters/Alaa Khweled)

‘Don't change horses in midstream’

Lincoln was attacked for holding an election during the Civil War. The Southern states, which were under the total control of the insurgent "Confederacy" were not included, as conducting an election in enemy territory would be impossible. Lincoln faced two major opponents at the polls. The Democrats ran on a "peace platform," feeling that the United States government should surrender to the insurgents, and let slavery continue in the South. The Radical Democratic Party ran on a platform that Lincoln was not aggressive enough, and should take immediate steps toward abolishing slavery. Lincoln feared he would not be re-elected. During his campaign, he coined his famous slogan, "Don't Change Horses Midstream!" urging national unity in the effort to win the war.

When the votes were counted, the result was clear. Lincoln was re-elected. He continued to lead the country to battle the insurgents, and finally was victorious. Slavery was officially abolished, and millions of African-Americans were freed from bondage.

President Bashar Assad faces a similar situation to the one faced by Lincoln 150 years ago. The Syrian Arab Republic faces a brutal insurgency, bankrolled by many wealthy billionaire interests in Wall Street and London, in addition to autocrats in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. With foreign money and guns pouring in, the "Free Syrian Army", the Al-Nusra Front, and a slew of other armed groups are beheading people, forcibly recruiting children, kidnapping for ransom, and committing other horrific war crimes. The insurgents control large sections of the country, and doing their best to abolish the religious freedom and diversity that have defined Syria for the last several decades.

Unlike the Civil War in the United States, the majority of the insurgents in Syria are not citizens, but imported foreign fighters. The Syrian Arab Republic has stood up for the Palestinian people, and aided their fight against the crimes of the Zionist Israeli settlers. Syria's economy is largely state-controlled, with western corporations not being allowed the neo-liberal "free rein" they desire to maximize profits. The Syrian government provides free healthcare and education for the population. In Syria, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, and Alawites have long lived side-by-side in peace. All of this has made the Syrian Arab Republic a target for the Wall Street imperialists, who are seeking to transform Syria into another Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Bahrain, where the will of the West can be forced by an autocratic puppet regime. The insurgents wage a campaign of terror and violence to destabilize the country, and to tear down the Syrian Arab Republic, so Wall Street and London can take over.

Syrians are rallying around their president as they resist foreign-backed insurgents’ campaign of terror. In addition to the Syrian Army, community militias have been formed. The country is coming together to defeat the campaign of violence against it.

When the United National Anti-War Committee and the International Action Center called a protest in front of the White House, nearly 1,000 Syrians gathered to unfurl their flag. Many placards with the face of President Assad were unfurled as well. Syrian Americans from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, and other parts of the country chanted "We love our President Bashar Al-Assad! We need our President Bashar Al-Assad!"

Just as Lincoln was correct to allow the 1864 presidential election to go forward, Assad is correct is hold the upcoming election on June 3. The people of Syria have the right to make their voice heard, despite the horrific civil war raging all around them.

Assad faces at least one major opponent in the upcoming election, and the results are yet to be seen.

But just as millions of people in the United States voted for Lincoln in 1864, it very likely that millions of Syrians will re-elect the man who leads their country against a foreign-backed campaign of terror. I predict that the logic of the Syrian people in 2014 will be the same as those in the US in 1864: "Don't Change Horses Midstream!"

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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