Exiled Syrian opposition figures today urged voters to boycott an upcoming parliamentary election, dismissing it as a cynical attempt by President Bashar Assad to hold on to power.
The regime has portrayed the vote set for tomorrow as a sign of its willingness to carry out reforms. The election for a 250-seat parliament comes three months after the adoption of a new constitution that allows for the formation of political parties to compete with the ruling Baath Party.
However, Assad's opponents say reforms without their input are a farce and that elections cannot be held under the threat of guns. A UN-brokered truce last month has failed to halt a brutal regime crackdown on a 14-month-old uprising against Assad.
"We are against these elections because they don't have any of the characteristics of free elections," said Haytham Manna, head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, one of the main opposition groups.
"It's a kind of joke. It is a kind of propaganda from the regime," added Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer and former senior member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella for several opposition factions. "The real opposition will not go to vote."
Manna spoke from Brussels and Maleh from London.
Since the outbreak of Syria's popular revolt in March 2011, the regime has made a series of gestures to try to allay the crisis, but also kept up its attacks on centers of rebellion. The UN says more than 9,000 people were killed in the first year of the uprising.
In February, the new constitution was approved in a referendum. It allows for the formation of new political parties and limits the president to two seven-year terms. Syria has been ruled by the Baath party since it seized power in a coup in 1963 and the Assad family has ruled since Bashar's father Hafez took over in another coup in 1970.
Eleven new parties are participating in Monday's election, along with the 10 parties of the National Progressive Front, an alliance dominated by the Baath party. Election officials said nearly 15 million of Syria's roughly 23 million people are eligible to vote.
In a pre-election day appearance, Assad on Sunday laid a wreath at a monument for Syrian troops in the Qasioun Mountain area overlooking the capital Damascus, the state-run SANA news agency said.
Earlier this week, SANA reported that a pro-regime candidate, Abdul-Hamid al-Taha, was gunned down in the southern city of Daraa in an attack it blamed on "armed terrorists," the term the regime generally uses for opponents.
The election comes more than three weeks after an April 12 cease-fire aimed at paving the way for political talks between Assad and those trying to bring him down.
The truce, brokered by special envoy Kofi Annan, has failed to take hold, though U.N. observers say it's helped bring down the level of violence. Regime forces continue to attack opposition strongholds and carry out arrests, while refusing to withdraw troops and tanks from the streets, as required by the Annan plan. Rebel fighters continue to target soldiers in shootings and bombings.
Currently, some 40 UN observers are in Syria, and the contingent is to reach 300 by the end of May. UN officials hope the deployment of more observers will gradually calm the situation, and Annan's spokesman says the peace plan remains on track.
The US government last week offered a bleaker view, saying it is perhaps time to seek another approach. However, the international community remains divided on Syria, and Assad allies Russia and China would likely block harsher UN Security Council measures.