Bashar Assad wants to consolidate rule over war-torn Syria in elections that the US dismisses as “neither free nor fair”.
Damascus – Thousands of Syrians gathered outside polling stations in government-controlled parts of the country on Wednesday to vote in an election that is virtually guaranteed to keep President Bashar Assad at the helm of a country. When the country’s subdued political opposition called for a boycott of the vote, riot police outside some polling stations fought to control the crowd that showed up. Many carried banners in support of the incumbent president.
It is Syria’s second presidential election since the 2011 popular uprising against Assad’s rule, which has turned into an all-out civil war.
Thanks to Russia’s support for turning the tide of the war, Assad’s rule is no longer seriously threatened by ISIS or the rebels, who have received varying degrees of support from the West. But with an estimated death toll of more than 400,000 and millions of people evicted from their homes, the war is still simmering in some corners of the country.
Seven women were among the 51 people who presented themselves as potential candidates to challenge Assad in this election.
The Syrian judiciary screened the candidates according to strict criteria: the candidates must be Muslims, have lived in Syria for the last 10 years (which disqualifies oppositionists in exile) and have the support of at least 35 members of the 250-member parliament.
At the end of this review process, only two remained: Abdallah Saloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, both largely unknown to the country.
“Neither free nor fair”
Assad’s campaign dominated the landscape. The streets of the main cities of Syria were decorated with posters that either featured or praised the president.
Nobody had the political machinery or the money to wage a serious campaign against Assad, who has ruled the country since he was taken over by his father in 2000.
SomethingEligible voters seeking refuge both inside and outside the country were not eligible to vote.
There were no polling stations in parts of the country still controlled by non-government forces, including the rebel-held Idlib province and regions in the north where Kurdish factions rule.
The US joined several European partners and the Syrian opposition in mocking “the regime’s attempts to regain legitimacy”. State Secretary Antony Blinken said the “so-called presidential elections” were “neither free nor fair”.
The only international observers invited to monitor the vote were parliamentary delegations from 14 nations, including Russia, Iran, China and Belarus.
“Bashar, Bashar, just Bashar”
Assad chose to cast his vote in the town of Douma, just outside Damscus. State television captured the moment and set it to music dramatically as Assad and his wife were surrounded by hundreds of people chanting pro-government slogans and cheering “Bashar, Bashar, only Bashar” as they cast their ballots.
It was a symbolic step: In April 2018, a chemical war attack was carried out in Douma, then a rebel stronghold. Medics and witnesses said the attack carried out by the US, Britain and France by Assad’s own army killed between 40 and 50 people. Syria and Russia said it was rebels who used the harmful gas and they rejected widespread videos allegedly showing the aftermath of the attack as staged.
When people came to the voting booth, no one doubted Assad would win, but by how much? Official figures show that he received almost 90% of the vote in 2014.
This year, Syrians voted amid the coronavirus pandemic and a crushing economic crisis. The country is grappling with food and electricity shortages, and many in government-controlled areas spend hours in line for fuel and bread. Power outages have forced local businesses to shut down, which has increased unemployment in recent months.
However, after years of steady military achievements thanks to his international allies in Moscow and Iran, Assad’s popularity has increased.
“I am convinced that he is the only leader who can achieve the aspirations of the Syrian people and guarantee that Syria will stay strong,” said Sami Kutaini, a 23-year-old university student who proudly wore a baseball cap with Assad’s face on it.
He told CBS News that he voted “to express my love for my country and my leader who gives us freedom, security and security”.
At one polling station, many voters refused to go behind the curtain to vote privately and instead publicly circled Assad’s name for all to see.
“Without him, Syria is divided,” yelled one voter who refused to give his name and said he was not looking for advertising. “He is the only one who can bring stability and prosperity to the country.”
“I am aware that the economy is dwindling, but this is due to US and European sanctions which are actually punishing ordinary citizens who support the government,” the man replied to a question.
Several voters admitted ignorance when asked about those who opposed Assad, including 43-year-old accountant Samar, who said the president would get her vote.
“Are you kidding me? Who else?” she said with a laugh as she went to cast her ballot.
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