Assad wants to increase grip on power as Syrians vote in polls, opposition calls ‘sham’

Syrians in government-held areas of the war-torn country voted on Wednesday in a controversial presidential election that guarantees President Bashar al-Assad a fourth term of seven years.

The controversial vote marks the second Syrian election since the beginning of a decade of conflict, in which more than 388,000 people have died and half of the pre-war population has been displaced.

Huge election posters glorifying Assad have sprouted like mushrooms in two-thirds of the country under government rule.

With opponents abroad not allowed to run and vote in the parts of the area beyond his control, Assad faces only two near-unknown challengers.

The vote has been dismissed as a sham by Syrian opposition groups and several Western governments, including the US.

“The so-called presidential elections of the Assad regime are neither free nor fair,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a Twitter message on Wednesday. “The US joins France, Germany, Italy and the UK and calls for rejection of the regime’s attempts to regain legitimacy without respecting the human rights and freedoms of the Syrian people.”

The Assad regime’s so-called presidential elections are neither free nor fair. The US, along with France, Germany, Italy and the UK, is calling for rejection of the regime’s attempts to regain legitimacy without respecting the human rights and freedoms of the Syrian people.

– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 25, 2021

Assad says Western views have a ‘zero’ value

Assad has dismissed the convictions, saying the Syrian state does not give weight to Western views on the validity of Wednesday’s vote.

“The value of these opinions is zero,” he told reporters after casting his vote in Douma, near the capital Damascus.

Douma saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Civil War, but is now back under government control.

It is part of the Eastern Ghouta region that touches the outskirts of the capital Damascus. In the city of East Ghouta, a suspected chemical attack took place in April 2018, which led to Western missile attacks on several suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria.

State television shows long lines at polling stations

The official SANA news agency stated that the vote had started as scheduled at 7:00 am (4:00 am GMT) and state television showed long lines in various parts of the country.

Syrians can vote in more than 12,000 polling stations and the results are expected to be announced Friday evening, 48 hours after the close of the vote.

The elections are taking place amidst the lowest levels of violence since 2011, but with an economy in free fall.

More than 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and the Syrian pound has depreciated against the dollar, with sky-high inflation.

Assad’s campaign slogan, “Hope Through Work,” evokes the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country, requiring billions in funding.

‘Tolerated opposition’

Assad, a 55-year-old ophthalmologist by training, was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.

He faces former Minister of State Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Merhi, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.

Assad has refrained from holding media events for campaigns and interviews.

But he issued a general amnesty for thousands of prisoners earlier this month, in addition to a series of decrees aimed at improving economic conditions.

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Khaled al-Rahmoun said on Tuesday that 18 million Syrians at home and abroad were officially eligible to vote.

But the real number of voters is likely to be smaller, with much of Syria beyond Assad’s control, and many refugees excluded.

Last week, thousands of Syrian refugees and expats cast an early vote in their host country’s embassies.

But Syrians who had fled the country illegally – and therefore could not show an exit stamp in their passport – were not allowed to vote.

Several countries opposed to Assad have completely blocked the vote, including Turkey and Germany, which are home to large Syrian refugee populations.

‘Farce’

The US and the European Union said on Tuesday that the elections were “neither free nor fair”, and the fragmented opposition in Syria called the polls a “farce”.

But they will watch helplessly as Assad prepares to renew his hold on power.

In rebel-held northwestern Syria, home to three million people, opposition activists on Tuesday distributed fake campaign posters ridiculing Assad in protest.

Kurdish authorities in the Northeast, who have carved out a semi-autonomous zone, said they are “not concerned” about the elections.

In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Assad got 88 percent of the vote.

It was Syria’s first elections in nearly 50 years, with Assad and his father Hafez renewing their mandates in successive referendums.

It took place while the war was raging, with air forces bombing rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.

This time the front lines are relatively quiet.

“Assad risks being the only security in a country in ruins,” said a European diplomat who followed Syrian affairs.

( Jowharwith AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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