Everywhere you look in central Damascus, you see President Bashar al-Assad's face: thoughtful on the T-shirt of a soldier, smiling on a wall, hidden behind sunglasses in a traffic circle. A casual observer might think he is the only candidate in the upcoming presidential election, as he has always been – until this year.
An Assad has not faced a presidential challenger in Syria since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader, seized power.
By those standards, the fact that President Bashar al-Assad will face at least one other candidate in the upcoming presidential election may seem like democratic progress; previous votes have all been referendums on the man in power. In 2007, he bagged 97.6 percent of the vote.
The election is part of the regime's effort to convince the international community it is pursuing a "democratic transition." But with much of the country impassable because of fighting and the electoral field hemmed in severely by candidacy requirements, this election is unlikely to be much different from the referendums that preceded it.
The capital is filled with posters and there have been demonstrations calling on Mr. Assad to run – he hasn't officially announced yet – while he and his wife have been making public appearances that have been widely broadcast. His candidacy and win appear inevitable in an election expected in June.
Central Damascus, a zone of stability in the fractured, war-weary country, is Assad's best stage to show support and control. The streets are clean, the store shelves are well-stocked, and people smoke shisha at neighborhood cafes. People talk about a “crisis,” not a war, and they no longer appear to notice the distant sound of the army shelling the suburbs. The contrast to the rebel-held neighborhoods, sometimes only blocks away, besieged and frequently shelled, is enormous.
In the lead-up to the election, storefronts across the city have been painted with the Syrian flag. Opposition activists say the flags were forced on shopkeepers by security forces who strong-armed people into painting them.
“Some do it because they wholeheartedly support the government. Others do it for protection,” says one shopkeeper in the Old City who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. “The government wants to show that it’s strong, accepted, and has a lot of support.”
His shutters remain unpainted, for now. “It’s too brutish for me,” he explains, displaying his alternative: one of the wooden plaques painted in the national colors that he sells. “For protection I have this.”
A meaningless vote?
Syria's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, insists that “if the president runs himself, he will run on the same level as other candidates."
But the idea of an equal challenger seems empty, given the string of candidacy requirements recently approved by the Syrian parliament. Presidential hopefuls must have lived in Syria continuously for the past 10 years and not have criminal convictions – effectively barring all opposition leaders from running. Candidates also need support from at least 35 lawmakers in a parliament dominated by Assad’s own Baath party.
The prospect of a true nationwide vote is also doubtful. Syrians in opposition-held areas have no way of casting a vote, nor do the 3 million who have fled the country. The regime is rumored to be issuing new identification cards for voters, which may effectively prevent anyone on their blacklist from taking part.
But in Damascus, the vote will likely go off without a hitch, fully backed by a military that is devoted to Assad.
“The soldiers at the checkpoints have pictures of Bashar al-Assad on their chest. The slogans on the checkpoints say they will die for Bashar. They are the army of al-Assad, not the army of Syria. And this army will secure the election centers," says Louay Hussein, founder and president of Building the Syrian State, an opposition movement in Damascus which is largely tolerated by the regime.
When asked if his movement will run a candidate, he laughs and lists all the barriers the regime has put in place to prevent anyone not approved by it to run.
“The regime claims that everyone in government-held areas supports it,” Hussein says. “But this is not the reality. We have thousands of people who are against it and are in prison, and a lot of Syrians who don’t want to say that they are against it. They are the silent majority.”
Other Syrians remain devoted to the army, whose protection has given them an island of normalcy insulated from the chaos outside.
“We want to show that this is our flag, not the other one. Without the army, we’d be nothing,” says Michael Mobassaleh, who recently painted the shutters of his supermarket in the upscale neighborhood of Shaalan. He says he wants nothing to do with the opposition’s flag. “The rebels just want to kill and plunder. They have tried to take Damascus many times, but the army has stopped them.”
Hoping for normal
That normalcy is at the crux of Assad's key campaign pledge: That he can return Syria to the relative stability and prosperity of the calm but repressive pre-war years.
The goal is to convince middle-ground Syrians and even some members of the opposition that "the continuance of the Bashar al-Assad-led government [is] the only possible light leading out of the dark tunnel of despair," says David Lesch, professor of Middle Eastern history at Trinity University and author of "Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad."
“Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government has tried to portray itself as a vehicle for a return to normalcy and continuity despite the chaotic conditions throughout much of the country,” he says. “Holding the election is part of this process, as the regime believes it will accord Bashar al-Assad more legitimacy.”
Occasionally rebel fire interrupts the calm of central Damascus, feeding city residents' sense that they face a threat from which only Assad can protect them. On a recent morning, a homemade rocket landed on the Jawdat al-Hashimi high school, mildly injuring two students.
“The rebels always target schools,” says Mohammed Mardini, director of education in Damascus, who rushed to the scene. He praised Ahmad Naeem, one of the injured, for returning to school after his visit to the doctor. “This situation is really difficult for us, but we hope it will get better. What can we do? We have to continue our lives."
In the upscale neighborhood of Mezze, signs of normalcy are creeping back. Here, a few kilometers from neighborhoods where houses lie in rubble, artists were recently awarded a Guinness World Record for their 7,700 square foot mural made of recyclable material. Passersby are more interested in the mural on the school wall – a myriad of old bottles, plates, and broken tiles – than the sound of mortars in the distance.
“Like this artwork, we need to make the country beautiful again,” says Leila Suleiman, a resident. “We stand strong with our president, and we will overcome this crisis."