The party’s top political committee endorsed the idea of independent political parties, voted to relax current emergency legislation, and agreed to amend media laws to allow more freedom of the press.
The measures were the result of four days of talks during the Baath Party conference in Damascus and are expected to be ratified by its 1,200 delegates. The conference is the first general meeting of party delegates since 2000, when President Bashar Assad took power after the death of his father, Hafez Assad.
During the conference, protesters and activists called on the party to implement reforms and release political prisoners. In a letter to party leaders, some 200 activists lamented what they said was a brief flowering of freedom and reform in the spring of 2000, following the death of the elder Assad, which they said was crushed by the government.
“[T]he forces of oppression … cracked down … and extinguished the spirit of life, light and freedom,” the letter said, according to the BBC.
Baath Party official Ahmed Haj Ali told the Reuters news service that the reforms voted on in the conference are genuine but will take time to implement.
Haj Ali said the current legal state of emergency, which critics say has been used to make arbitrary arrests for nearly 40 years, will be relaxed and will be implemented in Syria “only for extreme cases such as war.”
The vote to allow formation of independent political parties could lead to the modification of the Syrian constitution, which currently states that only 10 parties can exist in the country, and all of those must be under the Baath umbrella.
“The changes will mean it is no longer necessary for party leaders to get top government roles nor for government leaders to be senior party officials,” Haj Ali told Reuters.
Haj Ali said the changes will make Baath “a ruling party, not the ruling party.”
On Monday at the start of the conference, Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam told the conference he would retire after a three decades in the upper echelons of Syrian politics. According to the BBC, Khaddam has been described as a “hardliner” and the “architect” of Syria’s long influence over neighboring Lebanon.
Haj Ali said Khaddam wanted to “open the way for the younger generation” and give a positive example to others. Some, however, regard the resignation as a sign of serious disagreements within Syria’s political class, according to the Associated Press.