DAMASCUS: Syrians vote on Tuesday in a presidential poll that Bashar al-Assad is all but certain to win, but which the opposition has slammed as a “farce” that will prolong a brutal three-year war.
In theory, this will be Syria’s first election in nearly 50 years, with Assad and his father Hafez renewing their mandates in successive referendums.
But the controversial vote excludes regime opponents from running, and will only be held in areas under army control.
It takes place as the war rages, with the air force bombarding rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.
More than 15 million Syrians will be able to cast their vote in 11,000 ballot boxes distributed in more than 9,000 offices, which will be open from 7:00 am (0400 GMT) to 7:00 pm (1600 GMT).
Observers from countries allied to the regime — North Korea, Iran and Russia — are to supervise the voting, while a security plan has reportedly been put in place in Syrian cities to prevent possible attacks against voters and polling stations.
Syria’s divided rebels, like their Western and Arab backers, watch powerless as Assad prepares to renew his grip on power, after a string of advances on the ground, mainly in Homs and near the Lebanese border.
Opposition activists have branded the vote a “blood election”, while the country reels from a war that has killed more than 162,000 people.
For some time, rumours have swirled that polling stations in Damascus would be targeted by insurgents positioned in the nearby countryside.
Assad faces two virtually unknown competitors — Maher al-Hajjad and Hassan al-Nuri — while the head of state is glorified in huge posters and billboards set up across territory under regime control.
The Assad clan has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than 40 years. All dissent has been systematically crushed throughout that time, with Assad’s father Hafez notoriously crushing a Muslim Brotherhood-led rebellion in Hama in the 1980s, and tens of thousands of people still languishing in jails.
Nuri, who studied in the United States and speaks English, told AFP he expects to come second after Assad, who is sure to win.
Both he and Hajjar have issued only light criticism of Assad’s rule, for fear of being linked to an opposition branded “terrorist” by the regime, focusing instead on corruption and economic policy.
The United States has called the vote “a parody of democracy” that mocks the victims of the war.
The regime pulled off a coup last week when thousands of expatriates and refugees living abroad turned out for an early vote in the embassies of their host countries.
More than 95 percent of those registered cast their ballots, SANA state news agency said.
However, Syrians who entered countries illegally were not allowed to take part and only 200,000 of some three million refugees were on electoral lists abroad.
For Noah Bonsey, a senior Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, the regime is using the election “as part of a broader narrative portraying its eventual victory as inevitable.”
The war has destroyed large swathes of the country and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.
A Syrian monitoring group says 2,000 people, including hundreds of children, have been killed since January in a massive aerial offensive on Aleppo in the north, as the regime tries to retake the country’s second city after its advances in Homs, and Qalamun near Damascus.
“The regime can only gain ground after reducing it to rubble, and can only hold it insofar as it remains empty of its original inhabitants,” said Bonsey.
“This was the regime’s approach before the election and it remains so after it; it leads to continued war, not victory.”
But Waddah Abed Rabbo, chief editor of pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan, argued that the election could facilitate the resumption of peace talks, after negotiations in Switzerland earlier this year ended in a stalemate.
“In Geneva, the opposition made its rejection of Assad running in the presidential election a priority at the talks. Assad was a red line that blocked everything,” Abed Rabbo said.