Syrians across the country began voting for a new parliament yesterday in elections that few expected would do much more than further consolidate the regime's power.
The campaign slogans posted on buildings, trees and buses across the capital promise reform, transparency and prosperity, but there was lack of enthusiasm and some criticism -- even in Syria's official newspapers -- of the candidates' lack of detailed political programs.
Turnout was expected to be low, a tradition in Syria, where parliament has no major say in policy-making. Voting will continue today and results are not expected before Wednesday.
The ruling Baath Party and the National Progressive Front -- a cluster of nine small parties allied with it -- are assured of certain victory, regardless of the turnout in the election, since Syria's Constitution reserves two-thirds of legislature for candidates from the ruling coalition.
The remaining seats will be filled by candidates running independently, but their candidacy must be preapproved by the government.
Perhaps sensing people's apathy, the government has called for a heavy turnout. In a speech broadcast by Syrian Television on Saturday night, Interior Minister Bassam Abdel-Majid urged people to "exercise their electoral right" by choosing the most qualified candidates.
The elections, held every four years, come at a time when Syria is seeking to overcome its international isolation.
President Bashar Assad wants to capitalize on the two-day event to project an image of openness. His government has urged a high turnout and touted the election as a showcase of Syrian democracy.
But Syrian opposition groups have called for a boycott of the balloting, which they describe as a farce.
The US has also voiced deep skepticism.
"We don't have high expectations that this parliamentary election will either be free or fair," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last month.
During a briefing in Washington last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs J. Scott Carpenter described the vote as meaningless and "a missed opportunity" for change.
An editorial in Sunday's state-run Al-Thawra daily sharply criticized his comments, describing them as "wicked" and an interference in Syrian internal affairs.
Some 2,500 candidates are running for seats in the 250-seat National Assembly in this country of 18.6 million people.
Authorities have said that as many as 7 million citizens hold election cards.
Among the first tasks facing the new parliament is approving the Baath Party nomination for the Syrian president for a second seven-year term in office.
Assad is hoping this week's election will boost his standing ahead of a July referendum on renewing his mandate, even though he is expected to win the summer vote easily.
Assad is also seeking to strengthen his ranks in the face of rising pressure to establish an international tribunal to try the killers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
A UN investigation into the killing has implicated Syrian officials in the February 2005 assassination, charges which Syria denies.
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