Syrians started voting yesterday in a referendum on a new constitution to introduce political pluralism after almost a year of violence between pro-reform protesters and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Voting was held at 14,185 polling stations across the country, according to state television, which aired live footage of people waiting to cast ballots.
As voting proceeded, the Syrian army continued shelling the northern city of Idlib and the flashpoint Baba Amro area in Homs, according to al-Jazeera television. Sixteen civilians and 14 members of the army and security forces were killed across Syria yesterday, Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said by telephone.
Al-Assad promised constitutional changes last year as he sought to placate opponents by freeing some political prisoners, changing the Cabinet and lifting a 48-year-old emergency law. The measures failed to end protests and about 8,500 people have been killed in the government’s crackdown, according to the Arab Organization for Human Rights. Opposition groups said they are boycotting the vote.
The new constitution promises democratic elections, while limiting presidents to two seven-year terms, according to a draft published by the official Syrian Arab News Agency. Al-Assad’s Baath Party has had a monopoly on politics since seizing power in a 1963 coup.
“Participation is low in many areas,” Abdel Rahman said. “Participating in this referendum is like taking part and giving legitimacy for the Syrian regime in the killings. The boycott is meant to send a message to the regime that the people do not want these reforms while you are killing them.”
Syria’s army has intensified attacks since a resolution supported by the Arab League aimed at installing a transitional government, to be followed by elections, was vetoed at the UN Security Council by Russia and China on Feb. 4. Al-Jazeera put Saturday’s death toll at 107.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have urged arming the Syrian opposition, raising the prospect of a widening conflict after the “Friends of Syria” group met in Tunis on Friday to pressure al-Assad to step down.