Syrian opposition denounces Bashar al-Assad's election as a sham

Amid more violence and calls for a boycott, only a trickle of voters turn out in restive provinces

Beirut

Syrians went to the polls yesterday in the country's first multi-party parliamentary elections in 50 years, as swathes of the country went on strike and barely a trickle of voters was reported at ballot boxes in restive provinces.

The vote for 250 seats in the Syrian parliament – contested by more than 7,000 candidates – has been billed by the regime as a milestone that shows its commitment to reform. However, opposition groups had called for a boycott, writing it off as a sham that would do little to loosen President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power or bring any change to a 14-month old conflict that has claimed more than 9,000 lives.

The streets of the capital, Damascus, were adorned with all the trappings of a heated campaign race, but despite a referendum in February that paved the way for parties other than the ruling Baath Party to participate, there has been little political debate or sign of anyone standing on a platform that opposes the government.

The Syrian parliament has long been seen as little more than a rubber stamp for the Assad regime.

"I haven't seen anyone talking about a real programme for the next four years," said a 28-year-old from Damascus. "I didn't vote because nobody represents me and I don't think it would make any difference if I did."

State television ran blanket coverage, showing queues outside some polling stations as they opened at 7am. In one Damascus polling station, authorities said that 137 people had voted in the first three hours, but reporters from the Reuters news agecny observed only three people voting there in 40 minutes.

Some electors said they hoped the process would bring change. Hind Khalil, 23, a voter in Damascus told Reuters she would vote for some independent candidates as well as members of the new parties. "They have fresh ideas," she said. "I hope they will work for the welfare of the country and for combating corruption and bribery."

While the regime can expect some of its strongest support in the capital, in war-ravaged cities like Homs and Hama activists said there was little sign of elections at all, saying most residents had boycotted the vote.

"There is fighting and shooting and the humanitarian conditions are really terrible; nobody is even talking about the elections," said Saif Al Arabi, a member of the Homs Revolutionary Council. "Even if we did want to vote there are definitely no ballot boxes in opposition neighbourhoods."

The southern province of Deraa, the birthplace of the uprising, and the opposition stronghold of Hama were among areas that shut down for a general strike yesterday to protest against the vote. A video posted online shows the deserted streets and shuttered shops in Hama's centre, while another showed a similar scene in the village of Qalaat al-Madeeq.

The elections, originally scheduled to take place in September but postponed for President Assad to launch a "reform" process, took place against amid continued violence.

As the polls opened, fierce clashes were reported in neighbourhoods of Homs, where activists said government forces had launched an assault to rout rebel fighters. Three were killed in Deir ez-Zor, near the Iraqi border, where clashes took place for a second day, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, putting the death toll across the country at seven.

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