Syrians go to polls in areas controlled by Assad

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) and his wife Asma voting at a polling station in Damascus during the parliamentary elections, on April 13, 2016.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) and his wife Asma voting at a polling station in Damascus during the parliamentary elections, on April 13, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

DAMASCUS • Syrians went to the polls yesterday in areas controlled by President Bashar al- Assad's regime for parliamentary elections dismissed by the opposition as illegitimate.

The controversial polls come at a tense time, with a surge in violence in recent days threatening a fragile six-week ceasefire.

The vote coincides with the beginning of a second round of United Nations-brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending a devastating five-year conflict, with Mr Assad's future a key sticking point.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura will try again to reach a consensus at the talks on ending a war that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced half the population.

The negotiations are aimed at agreeing on a road map to peace, including formation of a transitional government followed by general elections.

Around 7,200 polling stations opened at 7am (12pm Singapore time) in government-held areas - about a third of the country's territory where about 60 per cent of the population lives. They were to remain open for 12 hours unless the electoral commission decided to extend the deadline.

Mr Assad's Baath party, which has controlled the country for more than half a century, was expected to extend its dominance of Parliament, although several parties are participating in the polls.

"I voted because this election will decide the country's future. I hope that the winners will be true to the nation even before being true to the voters," said Mr Yamin al-Homsi, a 37-year-old who voted in Damascus.

The presidency published photos of a smiling Mr Assad and his wife Asma casting their ballots in Damascus and speaking to volunteers at the polling station.

The domestic opposition last month called for a widespread boycott of the polls, accusing the government of using the vote to gain leverage in peace talks.

The High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition body involved in the talks, has branded the election illegitimate.

The vote is the second ballot since the beginning of the war in 2011, and 11,341 candidates initially sought to run for the 250 seats in Parliament. About 3,500 candidates remain in the race, after the rest withdrew "saying they had no chance of winning", Mr Hisham al-Shaar, the head of the Supreme Judicial Elections Committee, told reporters.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Syrians go to polls in areas controlled by Assad'. Print Edition | Subscribe