Assad loyalists are the only voters |
The National - 08 May, 2012
Syria held parliamentary elections yesterday, in a vote that government officials said brought wide popular participation despite a boycott by opposition groups, a general strike in protest areas and ongoing violence.
The election, the first in decades involving multiple parties, has been advertised by president Bashar Al Assad's regime as a major plank of its reform programme. But there is scant hope it will do anything to bring about a political solution to a deadly 13-month crisis.
More than 9,000 civilians have been killed by security forces since the uprising began last March, according to the United Nations, while the government says more than 2,600 security personnel have been killed by "terrorists".
At least seven civilians were killed by security forces yesterday, activists said.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their homes, seeking refuge from the bloodshed in other cities or neighbouring countries, and poverty is rapidly spreading as the economy crumbles.
Syria's information minister, Adnan Mahmoud, said the elections were held "in an atmosphere of democracy and political pluralism", according to the state-run Sana news agency which also reported "wide turnout" of voters.
All opposition groups refused to field candidates and urged Syrians not to cast votes, saying it was impossible to hold a free and fair election under the circumstances.
Troops remain deployed across much of the country, an estimated 20,000 political prisoners are jailed and killings remain a daily occurrence, despite the presence of UN observers trying to ensure compliance with a ceasefire brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy to Syria.
Government officials said 7,195 candidates took part in yesterday's contest for 250 parliamentary seats, all of which will be filled with Mr Al Assad's supporters, given the opposition boycott and strict laws governing political parties that prevented any of his real critics from running.
Nine new political parties - none from the opposition - have been approved by the interior ministry, seven of which put candidates in for yesterday's vote. Previously, only the ruling Baath Party and an allied bloc, the National Progressive Front, were allowed to take part in parliamentary elections.
Although parliament has little authority - real power is exclusively held by the Syrian president under the latest constitution, passed in February - any candidate in the proposed 2014 presidential election requires backing from at least 35 MPs.
The pro-Assad parliament elected yesterday will, therefore, effectively lock out any opposition figure from a future presidential contest held under the current system.
"These elections are for the regime, there are no real parties involved in them, they are all supplements to the regime," said Mahmoud Muraie, a human-rights lawyer and member of the opposition National Coordination Committees (NCC).
He said the NCC, the only major political opposition group based inside Syria, had not applied for a licence to be considered a political party or contest the elections.
Street level activists gave their response to the elections by calling for a general strike and by holding protests before, during and after the ballot calling for the regime's overthrow.
On Sunday, dozens of anti-regime demonstrators gathered briefly in the central square in Damascus, demanding freedom. They dispersed before trucks of anti-terrorist agents with assault rifles arrived at the scene.
Supporters of Mr Al Assad say the elections show that authorities are serious in trying to find political answers to the crisis.
"The situation is already improving and it [the uprising] is almost finished, it will be over soon and the elections and a new parliament will help that," said a teacher from Damascus, a backer of the Syrian president.
"The armed groups are almost finished, there will be political reforms and things will get better again," he said.
Russia and China, Syria's key international allies who have shielded it from two critical UN security council resolutions, have similarly expressed hope the elections would contribute to a political settlement.
Also yesterday, Syrian state-run media said the authorities were "facilitating" the UN observer mission and would continue to follow Mr Al Assad's reform programme.