Syrians in government-held areas of the war-torn country yesterday headed to polling stations to vote in a presidential election set to give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a fourth seven-year term.
The vote is the second presidential election since the country’s conflict began 10 years ago and has been dismissed as a sham by the opposition and Western countries.
Two other candidates are running for the country’s top post, which has been held by members of the al-Assad family for five decades.
They are little known figures, Abdullah Salloum Abdullah and Mahmoud Ahmad Marie.
However, competition with al-Assad is largely seen as symbolic.
Starting at 7am, thousands began arriving at polling stations in Damascus, where streets have been decorated with giant posters of al-Assad and banners praising his rule. Few posters of the two other candidates appeared in the streets.
“We choose the future. We choose Bashar al-Assad,” read one of many banners raised in the capital, Damascus.
No vote was to be held in northeast Syria, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters, or in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last major rebel stronghold in the country.
In some parts of government-held areas, including the southern provinces of Daraa and Sweida, many have rejected the vote, calling it “illegitimate.”
The Syrian Democratic Council, which runs daily affairs in northeast Syria, said in a statement that it would not take part in the vote “before political solutions in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, release of detainees, return of displaced and putting the basis for a political structure far away from tyranny.”
On Sunday, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous traveled to Sweida along with a dozen Cabinet ministers in the first such visit in years to meet local officials.
There has reportedly been widespread anger against the vote and overspending on pro-al-Assad campaigns in the city at a time when much of the region’s population lives in poverty.
The vote comes as Syria’s economy is in free fall as a result of Western sanctions, government corruption and infighting, the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial crisis in Lebanon, Syria’s main link with the outside world.
Some of the voters waiting at polling stations were wearing masks.
Over the past three months, intensive care units in public hospitals in Damascus reached full capacity due to a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections, leading doctors to transfer patients to hospitals in other provinces.
In March, al-Assad and his wife, Asma, tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has said it will not recognize the result of the Syrian election unless the voting is free, fair, supervised by the UN and represents all of Syrian society.
“We are not involved in these elections ... in any way, and we, of course, have no mandate to be,” UN secretary-general’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the UN on Tuesday.
“We are, of course, aware that the elections are taking place. It’s important to remind you in answering the question that ... these are being called under the auspices of the current constitution and not part of the political process that was established under resolution 2254,” Dujarric said.
Syrian Minister of the Interior Mohammad Rahmoun said that 12,102 polling stations were set up in all if Syria’s governorates.
He said there are more than 18 million eligible voters in Syria and abroad.
Syrians living abroad voted last week.
Syria had a population of 23 million before the conflict broke out a decade ago. The fighting has left nearly 500,000 dead and half the country’s population displaced, more than 5 million of them refugees outside Syria.
The civil war broke out in 2011 when Arab Spring-inspired protests against al-Assad family rule turned into an armed insurgency in response to a brutal military crackdown.
Al-Assad has been in power since 2000, when he took over from his father, former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, who ruled before that for 30 years.
Despite the war, which seemed at one point to threaten his rule, Bashar al-Assad remained in power supported by regional powerhouse Iran and Russia, which sent in military advisers and air power to push back the armed opposition.
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