Kadri Jamil took a deep puff of his cigarette before waving his hand dismissively when asked why he was a candidate for Syria’s parliamentary elections.
“I have no illusions about the role or the powers of the parliament,” Jamil said in a May 5 interview in his cramped Damascus office. Still, he said, “the elections could be the start of a comprehensive political process that will end the conflict in the country, which is why I’m running.”
Jamil, head of the communist Popular Will Party, is one of about 7,000 candidates contesting 250 seats today, even as the 14-month uprising rages on and large swaths of the country are beyond government control. At least 18 people were killed yesterday, Al Arabiya television said, citing activists.
Armed groups set fire to buses belonging to a private company in Zibdeen on the outskirts of Damascus, the state-run SANA news agency reported today. It said authorities freed 14 people, including seven women, kidnapped four days ago by armed groups in Madaya outside Damascus.
Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time and voting is due to continue until 10 p.m.
‘Interests of the People’
“I’m voting because it’s my right, I voted for those who would serve my country and defend my rights,” said Bana al-Bateh, a housewife, after casting her ballot in the capital. “I do hope that the new parliament would serve the interests of the people and not its own interests.”
The government is promoting the vote as part of a series of political changes President Bashar al-Assad has introduced in response to the uprising. Assad -- part of the minority Alawite sect -- has portrayed the unrest as an Arab-Western conspiracy and the rebels as radical Islamists. Opposition groups have dismissed the vote as a sham and are largely boycotting it.
Pictures of the candidates for the 29 seats in Damascus are tacked to palm trees, lampposts and buildings. Banners promising change, greater participation for women and the eradication of terrorism -- the term the government uses to refer to the uprising -- span the streets.
The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed since the uprising began. Violence persists even after the UN sent a team of monitors to the country and pledged to send more. The observers aim to calm the fighting so that talks can begin on implementing a peace plan drafted by envoy Kofi Annan.
“The elections are an illusion, and participation will be weak,” Mahmoud Merei, a lawyer who heads the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a Damascus interview. “You have candidates representing conflict areas they cannot go to and areas where it’s not possible to have ballot boxes.”
The unrest has hurt the country’s economy. Output shrank by 3.4 percent last year according to a March report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and will contract another 5.9 percent this year. The country’s budget deficit will probably widen to 18 percent of gross domestic product, the EIU forecast.
Used-car salesman Mohammed al-Sharif, 38, says he hopes the elections stabilize the situation enough for the economy to recover. For months now, he says he’s hardly had any sales as banks tighten lending.
Deposits fell by an average of 35 percent in 2011 at Bank of Syria and Overseas SA, Bank Audi Syria and Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi, according to April filings to the Damascus Securities Exchange. Lending plunged 22 percent last year, the filings by the three banks show.
“The elections are crucial,” al-Sharif, whose wife was dressed in the long robe and scarf favored by conservative Sunnis, said in a May 4 interview as they walked with their three children to a Damascus restaurant for lunch.
More than 14 million Syrians are eligible to vote. Eleven newly registered parties have been allowed in addition to an umbrella group largely made up of the Baath Party, which has had a monopoly on politics since seizing power in a 1963 coup.
“Your future is in your hand” is the slogan the government has chosen for the vote, the first since a new constitution providing for political plurality was approved in a February referendum. Assad promised constitutional changes last year as he sought to placate opponents by freeing some political prisoners, changing the Cabinet and lifting a 48-year-old emergency law.
The candidates include Baath party loyalists, businessmen who have thrived under Assad and political activists who identify themselves as being part of the opposition.
‘Love and Purity’
“I’m a nationalist opposition candidate,” Omar Ossi, a Kurdish candidate, said in an interview at a Damascus café on May 5. “It means I’m critical of the government but I am for dialogue with the regime and I reject foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.”
That suspicion of external actors resonated among some voters.
“I wanted to choose a group of young candidates because they stood against foreign intervention in Syria, and because they have new ideas that are different from those of the older generations,” said Sumar Abu-Fadel, a 30-year-old businessman, after voting in Damascus.
The elections were announced on March 13, giving the candidates, many with no political experience in a country where freedoms are limited, little time to prepare. Some of the promises being made are vague -- a candidate from Homs is running on a platform of “tenderness, love and purity.” Others champion causes that have no bearing on the conflict: The No. 2 priority for Mohammed al-Khani, who’s running in Damascus, is making Aug. 10 a day for celebrating Arabic.
Georges Ghossen, a 60-year-old ophthalmologist on a saunter through the streets of Damascus with his wife, Margherita, said he still believes in the legitimacy of the Assad regime.
“The Arab Spring has not been a good model,” Ghossen said. “It showed that when the head is cut, there’s chaos, while changes are possible when the head is still there.”