The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party is Syria's dominant political institution. It has a countrywide organization and controls mass organizations for youth, students, women, and the like. Only the Ba'ath may carry on political activity in the armed forces. It is far larger and more influential than the combined strength of its five partners in the National Progressive Front (NPF). This official political alignment, formed by President Assad in 1972, groups the Communist Party of Syria (SCP) and small leftist parties—the Syrian Arab Socialist Union (ASU), the Socialist Unionist Movement (ASUM), the Democratic Socialist Union Party (DSUP), and the Arab Socialist Party (ASP)—with the Ba'ath. The Ba'ath Party was founded in 1947 with goals of Arab liberation, Arab unity, and socialism. Ba'thists attained control of the government in 1963, but the party became divided into two factions, a wing of doctrinaire socialists and a more pragmatic wing. Assad, then minister of defense and a strong nationalist, seized power in a bloodless coup in November 1970 and purged the doctrinaire Ba'thists from the government. The Ba'thists have relied for public support on the minority Alawi sect, of which Assad was a member, and on the rural sector of the population generally. During his years as president, Assad appointed Ba'thist Alawis to influential positions in the government and in the military and security services. When Assad died on 10 June 2000 the Ba'ath Party held a party congress—its first since 1985— and elected Bashar Assad secretary-general. Bashar Assad succeeded his father as president the next month.
Hafez Assad, the sole presidential candidate for over 20 years, won national plebiscites by 99% majorities on 12 March 1971, 8 February 1978, 13 March 1985, 2 December 1991, and 10 February 1999. His son, Bashar, won in July 2000 by a vote of8.6 million to 22,000. In elections on 1 December 1998, the Ba'ath won 135 seats; the ASU, 8; SCP, 8; ASUM, 7; ASP, 5; DSUP, 4; and independents, 83. Parliamentary elections were set for 2 March 2003.