Syrians are expected to largely shun the polling booths today in an election widely written off as a sham that will do nothing to loosen President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power.
The vote for members of the country’s 250-seat parliament takes place against the background of deadly violence, with fierce fighting erupting in the eastern region of Deir Al-Zor yesterday. The elections are the first since a referendum on a new constitution in February ended the ruling Baath Party’s monopoly on politics and supposedly paved the way for a multi-party system.
The streets of Damascus are bedecked with campaign posters and billboards, giving the appearance of lively campaign race, with the regime touting the elections as evidence of its commitment to reform. However, few believe that the poll is much more than a publicity stunt and analysts say that there is not even the most limited opposition with candidates uniformly loyal to the regime.
Overseas opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council and National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria urged a boycott, while activists on the ground announced the formation of an “alternative” opposition parliament yesterday, made up of members of local revolutionary councils. In the southern town of Dael election campaign posters were replaced with pictures of 20 local residents who have died in the uprising.
“We think the elections have no credibility at all in the middle of a situation where the regime is killing the population,” said SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani. “It is an insult to the democratic process.”
The accusations of irregularities had already begun yesterday. Abu Adnan, an activist in Hama, claimed he saw transparent ballot boxes being driven to the city's polling stations yesterday already filled with voting cards.
“Syria has had elections before, but these are probably the most farcical of them all,” said Syria expert Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre. “The Baath party, the ruling elite and Bashar are not letting go of any semblance of power. Large parts of the country are in conflict and few would argue what they are electing is a real parliament”
Rebel fighters armed with rocket-propelled grenades attacked tank positions in the tribal Sunni heartland of Deir Al-Zor near the Iraqi border yesterday in retaliation after an army offensive in the towns and villages of the area, activists said. It was unclear how many had died.
“Very few will be voting,” said Mousab Alhamadee, an activist from Hama. “The only ones who will go will be from the Alawite villages loyal to the regime and the rest, such as government employees, will be voting with a pistol to their heads.”
The government said that February's referendum had a turnout of more than 57 per cent, but there is no way of verifying its figures.
As the regime prepared for the polls, Naif Shaban, an opposition activist from Damascus, announced the formation of the Syrian Transitional Parliament.
“We want to send a message that we are the real representatives of the people and your elections are a sham,” Mr Shaban, the political spokesman for the parliament, which claims to be a grassroots movement, told The Independent. Mr Shaban said local revolutionary councils have nominated representatives from across the country, with 96 of the 120 seats filled though the names of its members will not be made public. “The revolution is a hidden world,” he said.