Syria holds 'farcical' poll while violence continues


Syrians voted in a government-sponsored referendum yesterday, which if approved would allow multi-party elections and time limits on presidential terms.

The poll was rejected as farce and a political stunt by activists and Western politicians who say it is designed solely to bolster the beleaguered Bashar al-Assad.

Members of the Syrian opposition called for a boycott and demanded the international community intervene to end a conflict that has left at least 6,000 people dead.

"The Syrian people are calling for international intervention and for this regime to step down," said Omar al-Muqdad, a senior Syrian activist. "They do not want a constitution or political parties. The Syrian government is mocking the international community and the Syrian people."

Western diplomats lined up to criticise the vote, as the artillery bombardment continued to kill dozens in Homs and Idlib. "Sham votes cannot contribute to a solution of the crisis," said the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "Assad needs to put an end to the violence and clear the way for a political transition."

A new constitution would pave the way for a multi-party system to be established in Syria by abolishing an article that makes the Baath Party the only legal party. It will also limit presidents to two consecutive seven-year terms. If adopted, the constitution will allow Assad to stay in power until 2028, while multi-party elections would be held within three months.

According to the Syrian government, more than 14,000 polling stations around the country opened at about seven in the morning local time for Syria's approximately 14.6 million eligible voters. Activists claimed that regime forces had confiscated the identity cards of some individuals, telling them that they could be retrieved only after voting.

Mr Assad's supporters claim that the constitution is a sign that he is willing to make political reforms. However, the opposition insists Mr Assad step down without further negotiations. Syrians in the northern Idlib province expressed their sentiments by scrawling their names on faux ballots and throwing them in a rusted trash container with the words "The referendum box, 26 February, 2012" written across it in spray paint. Posted on YouTube, the video was completed with a man waving a Kalashnikov to make grinning Syrians "vote".

At least 31 people were killed in violence across Syria as voting took place, most of them in Homs.