Syria: A farce worth reckoning with

Bashar al-Assad has been re-elected Syria’s president with 88.7% of the vote, after a poll labelled a farce by rebels fighting to overthrow him, whose outcome was never in doubt.

The other candidates in Tuesday’s vote – Hassan al-Nuri and Maher al-Hajjar – won 4.3% and 3.2%, respectively, parliamentary speaker Mohammad al-Lahham said.

Assad and his wife Asma voted in a school in the Malki area of Damascus on Tuesday, amid heavy security. Hajjar and Nuri voted in the Sheraton Hotel.

“I congratulate Syria for choosing its chief, who will carry its people to the shores of security and stability,” Lahham said. Celebratory shots fired by Assad supporters killed at least three people in Damascus as the results were announced, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 15-million Syrians were eligible to vote in 9 000 polling stations but there were none in the northern and eastern areas, which are in opposition hands. State media trumpeted a big turnout: the figure reached 73.42%, or 11.6-million people, an official said.

In the Bab al-Salam refugee camp on the Turkish border, Ibrahim al-Khalilm (43), who lost both his legs in an air strike last year, said: “If Bashar al-Assad would give me my legs back, then I would vote. But I can’t bring my cousin, my brother and my uncle back either. All my life he will remain an enemy for me. Elections cannot be held in pools of blood.”

Voted out of fear
Pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said millions had voted, “defying terrorism and its mortars, rockets, car bombs and suicide attackers, to prove the legitimacy” of Assad for a third seven-year term. But opposition activists were quick to claim people had voted out of fear, not conviction.

Earlier, Assad “thanked all the Syrians who turned out en masse to vote”. His office’s Facebook page said Syrians “are proving day after day their belief in a culture of life, hope and defiance, in the face of a culture of death, terrorism and narrow-mindedness.”

The election had “intentionally denied millions of Syrians the right to vote”, United States state department spokesperson Marie Harf said. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Beirut on Wednesday, described the vote as a “great big zero” and urged Assad allies Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah to end the war.

Kerry announced $290-million in humanitarian aid for Syria and countries hosting refugees. “The conflict is the same, the terror is the same, the killing is the same,” he said.

The president of the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, lambasted what he called “blood elections” in an article in the Washington Post. He said Assad was using the carefully managed contest to bolster his legitimacy and project confidence after more than three years of conflict in which 160 000 people have died and nine million have been made homeless.

“I think the elections are the best way to express our opinion,” one voter in Damascus said when asked before a tv camera. “We are with President Bashar al-Assad until the end of our lives.”

Observers from countries allied to the regime – North Korea, Iran and Russia – supervised the voting.

Analysts are united in seeing the election as Assad’s way of showing he is in charge. “Part of being a leader is demonstrating power, and making people line up and elect you, whether out of fear or devotion, is an important process that demonstrates to his supporters that he is loved and feared,” Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University told the Syria Deeply website.

“And it demonstrates to his opponents that he has this massive approval and that he can bring people out on to the streets. It’s meant to intimidate the opposition. It makes it very clear that Assad has every determination to stick around. And, in many ways, it underlines the fact that he has been winning in the last year, not by a lot, but by inches.” – Additional reporting by Salim Rizk. © Guardian News & Media 2014

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Ian Black
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