Syria dictator Assad casts vote in 'sham' presidential election
Polling stations opened Wednesday across Syria for an election that is known to be an extension of dictator Bashar al-Assad's rule, who is set to enter his fourth term in a war-battered country mired in economic crisis.
Huge election posters glorifying the brutal dictator have mushroomed across the two-thirds of the country under regime rule.
The posters came in conjunction with the regime setting up military reinforcements in Daraa in the lead up to the elections, a region that is often described as the birthplace of the Syrian revolution and which has been the site of further unrest against the regime.
Opponents abroad are barred from running and there will be no provisions for voting in the swathes of territory outside his control. Only three out of 51 applications to stand on the ballot were approved by the body, appointed by Assad. Among them was the 55-year-old strongman himself.
His two others running in the "sham election" are - Abdallah Salloum Abdallah, a former minister and Mahmoud Marei, a member of the so-called "tolerated opposition" long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the brutal regime.
The official news agency SANA declared voting had started as planned at 7am and state television showed long queues forming in several parts of the country, where voters are often coerced into taking part in the elections.
Assad cast his vote in Douma city in the rural area of Damascus, the site of a horrific regime chemical attack which left hundreds dead.
Syrians can cast their ballots in more than 12,000 polling centres, and results are expected to be announced by Friday evening, 48 hours after voting closes.
The election takes place amid the lowest levels of violence since 2011 - but with an economy in free-fall and an ongoing violent dictatorial rule.
More than 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line, and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the dollar, with inflation skyrocketing.
Assad's campaign slogan, "Hope through work", evokes the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country destroyed by his military brutal suppression of an uprising and requiring billions in funding.
Assad was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled Syria with an iron fist for 30 years.
He has refrained from holding campaign media events and interviews.
But he issued a general amnesty for thousands of mostly criminal prisoners earlier this month, on top of a series of decrees that aim to improve economic conditions, but tens of thousands of political detainees remain missing in Syria's dungeons.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Khaled al-Rahmoun on Tuesday said that 18 million Syrians at home and abroad were officially eligible to vote.
But the actual number of voters will likely be smaller, with wide swathes of Syria outside Assad's control, and with many refugees excluded.
Last week, thousands of Syrian refugees and expatriates cast an early ballot in the embassies of their host countries.
However, the millions of Syrians who were forced to flee their home illegally - who could not show an exit stamp in their passport - were barred from voting.
Several countries that view the election as a sham blocked the vote altogether, including Turkey and Germany, which host large Syrian refugee populations.
Mocking a 'farce' attempt to legitimise power
The US and the European Union said Tuesday the elections were "neither free nor fair," and Syria's fragmented opposition has called the polls a "farce".
"We deplore the Assad regime’s decision to conduct these elections outside the framework detailed by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and we support the votes of all Syrians who condemned the electoral process and described it as illegal, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition," the US Embassy in Syria said on Wednesday morning.
In Syria's rebel-held northwest, home to three million people, opposition activists on Tuesday distributed mock campaign posters ridiculing Assad in protest of him trying to legitimise his decades-long regime which has left hundreds of thousands dead.
Kurdish authorities in the northeast, who have carved out a semi-autonomous zone, said they are "not concerned" with the election.
In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Assad took 88 percent of the vote. In other "sham referendums" regarding his rule, Assad received well over 90 percent of the vote - in elections also viewed as unfree and unfair.
The last presidential "election" took place as the war raged, with brutal regime bombardments of rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.
This time around, the frontlines are relatively quiet.
"Assad is running the risk of being the only certainty in a country in ruins," said a European diplomat following Syrian affairs.
Agencies contributed to this report.