Syrians in government-controlled areas went to the polls in an election that’s set to give President Bashar al-Assad new impetus to suppress rebels fighting against him in a three-year civil war.
Voting ended at midnight, the official news agency SANA said early today, citing the head of the election committee, Hisham al-Shaar. It was extended for five hours because of a “remarkably heavy turnout,” SANA said.
Some voters pricked their fingers and squeezed blood onto the circle under Assad’s picture to declare publicly their backing for the president. “This drop of blood is a salute to the president,” Hoda Saqr, 42, said by telephone. “With his wise leadership, the country was able to withstand the attack against it.”
For the first time in at least four decades, the ballot includes more than one candidate. While the government has highlighted the development as proof it is moving toward more democracy, the two challengers have steered clear of criticizing Assad or holding him responsible for a war that the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has killed more than 162,000 people and displaced millions more.
The vote comes nine months after Assad avoided a U.S. military strike by agreeing to give up his chemical arsenal and almost four months after talks mediated by the United Nations failed to produce even an agreement on an agenda. The government delegation refused to discuss the formation of a transitional government, as stipulated in a 2012 accord.
“We need to look forward without casting blame on any side,” lawmaker Maher Hajjar, one of the candidates, said by telephone from Damascus. “What’s needed now is consensus on the characteristics of the new Syria.”
Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad before him were elected by referendums in which voters cast yes or no ballots. The 48-year-old leader is seeking a third seven-year term.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition, the U.S. and some European countries have dismissed the vote.
“Assad’s staged elections are a farce, they’re an insult, they’re a fraud on democracy, the Syrian people and the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told PBS television that the vote won’t have “much impact on the battlefield.” He said it’s mostly significant as a signal that “Assad is not leaving. He is staying deeply entrenched in the capital in Syria, even as other parts of the country remain outside his control.”
Ford estimates the government-controlled areas, where the vote is being held, at about a quarter of the country.
State television showed crowds packing the polling stations. Almost 16 million Syrians were eligible to vote. Five people were killed in mortar attacks on Damascus during the day, the Syrian Observatory said.
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