Syrians cast ballots yesterday in parliamentary elections billed by the regime as key to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s political reforms, but which the opposition dismissed as a sham meant to preserve his autocratic rule.
The voting for Syria’s 250--member parliament is unlikely to affect the course of the popular uprising, which began 13 months ago with protests against al-Assad. The regime has violently cracked down on dissent and many in the opposition have armed themselves, pushing the country toward civil war.
The UN says more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria’s turmoil.
Polls opened at 7am and Syrian state TV showed voters lining up and dropping white ballots in large, plastic boxes. Election officials say more than 7,000 candidates are competing in a country of almost 15 million eligible voters out of a population of 24 million.
The elections are the first under a new constitution, adopted three months ago. The charter for the first time allows the formation of political parties to compete with al-Assad’s ruling Baath party and limits the president to two seven-year terms.
Al-Assad has made a series of gestures toward reform to try to allay the crisis, but his opponents say his efforts are too little, too late. The vote was initially to take place in March, but was postponed after last month’s referendum on the country’s new constitution that allowed new political parties to run.
The parliament is not considered an influential body in Syria, where the real power is concentrated around al-Assad and a tight coterie of family and advisers. Experts say that despite the legal changes, Syria’s oppressive security services keep true regime opponents farom participating in politics.
The opposition has called the elections a farce and says it will accept nothing short of the fall of al-Assad’s regime.
“The face of the regime will not change,” activist Mousab Alhamadee said, speaking on Skype from the central city of Hama. “The regime is like a very old woman, a woman in her 70s, trying to put on makeup.”
Alhamadee said streets were empty and shops were closed as residents observed a general strike to protest the elections. Activists reported strikes elsewhere, and some hung posters of those killed during the uprising around their neighborhoods, saying their “martyrs” are the only suitable candidates.
It is unclear if voting will take place in all parts of the country, especially in areas heavily damaged by government shelling and clashes between government troops and rebels.
World powers remain divided on how to address Syria’s crisis, though all key players have endorsed a peace plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan designed to lead to discussions on a political solution between the regime and the opposition.
However, that plan has been troubled from the start. A truce that was to begin on April 12 has never really taken hold. About 40 UN observers are currently in Syria to monitor the truce. UN officials hope a wider deployment of up to 300 international truce monitors will gradually calm the situation.