Syrians voted in a parliamentary election in government-held areas of the country on Wednesday in what they called a show of support for President Bashar al-Assad, while his opponents and Western powers denounced the poll as illegitimate.
The election is going ahead independently of a U.N.-led peace process aimed at ending the five-year-long war. Peace talks are due to resume in Geneva on Wednesday as an upsurge in fighting darkens the already bleak outlook for diplomacy.
The government says the vote is being held on time in line with the constitution, a view echoed by its Russian allies. The opposition says the election is meaningless, while Britain and France dismissed it as “flimsy facade” and a “sham”.
Voters are to elect 250 MPs to parliament, which has no real power in Syria’s presidential system. The state is rallying them around the slogan “Your vote strengthens your steadfastness”.
“We are voting for the sake of the Syrian people and for the sake of Assad. Assad is already strong but these elections show that the people support him and bolster him,” said Hadi Jumaa, a 19-year-old student, as he cast his ballot at his university halls of residence in Damascus.
Dozens queued to vote at one polling station where a portrait of Assad hung on the wall. Outside, some danced.
With his wife Asma at his side as he went to vote in Damascus, a smiling Assad told state TV that terrorism had been able to destroy much of Syria’s infrastructure but not Syria’s “social structure, the national identity”. Assad said it was the first time a president had taken part in parliamentary polls.
“These elections do not mean anything,” said Asaad al-Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main opposition body, the High Negotiations Council. “They are illegitimate – theater for the sake of procrastination, theater through which the regime is trying to give itself a little legitimacy.”
The conflict has killed more than 250,000 and created millions of refugees, splintering Syria into a patchwork of areas controlled by the government, an array of rebels, a powerful Kurdish militia, and the Islamic State group. The government views all the groups fighting it as terrorists.