Syrians headed to the polls Monday morning to vote for a new parliament in an election hailed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad as the latest evidence of reform, but was overshadowed by unrelenting violence and dismissed by the opposition as a charade.
The parliamentary election is the first multiparty poll since a new constitution was adopted in February following a nationwide referendum which included a clause ending the political monopoly of the ruling Baath Party. But security concerns and an opposition boycott will dent the impact of the election and do little to end the violence which has left more than 10,000 Syrians dead over the past 14 months.
“These elections by themselves are not going to be very meaningful, but they are part of a willingness on the regime’s side to show some leniency that might, at the end, in a few months … be part of a political solution,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
The polls opened at 7 a.m. across Syria and Syria’s state-run television channels broadcast footage showing people ticking voting slips and placing them in ballot boxes.
In one Damascus polling station, 137 people voted in the first three hours, local authorities told the Reuters news agency. But a reporter at the scene only saw three people voting there during a 40-minute period.
Seven parties competing
The election was original scheduled for last September but was postponed. Nine parties have been established since February and seven of them have candidates competing for parliamentary seats. The Baath Party, which has dominated Syria since 1963, heads a pro-regime alliance called the National Progressive Front. The state-run SANA news agency said that 7,195 candidates, including 710 women, are vying for the 250 parliamentary seats.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said that the election would be held “in an atmosphere of democracy and political pluralism.”
“The Syrian people have shown the highest degree of awareness and resolve to move ahead with reforms, indicating that the Syrians’ participation is intended to challenge the terrorism waged by regional and international powers against Syria,” he said in a statement Sunday.
The Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist gangs” and “Islamic terrorists” and have accused some Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia, of supporting the anti-regime campaign with weapons and money.
The opposition, which is calling for an end to the Assad regime’s rule, has refused to participate in the polls.
The Syrian National Council, the leading opposition body, condemned the regime’s decision to hold elections “under gunfire, missiles of all kinds and genocide.”
“Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces two million Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people, does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution or an electoral law or to run elections,” the SNC said in a statement.
Further violence was reported during the morning with three Syrians killed in the eastern Deir ez Zour province, and clashes were reported Sunday night in several areas of Hama in central Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.