Q: Why is President Bashar al-Assad asking Syrians to go to the polls in the middle of a civil war?
A: Despite increasing criticism, Syria's president is standing by his decision to hold presidential elections on June 3. Going to the polls is supposed to help him claim legitimacy for his regime, according to Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East expert with the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
"It allows him to say to Syrians and to the world that he has a new mandate and that the question of transferring power away from him is wholly beside the point," Barnes-Darcey told DW in an interview. Barnes-Darcey added that it's out of the question for him that the election process is some sort of fraud.
What's the reaction of Syrian opposition groups?
The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella association of opposition and rebel groups, calls the elections a farce.
"The Assad regime has never been voted for, it stands for a family dictatorship that has lasted 44 years," SNC wrote in a statement. Before Bashar al-Assad came to power, his father Hafez ruled over the country. If one-third of the country is on the run, then real elections aren't possible, SNC said.
How is the international community reacting to the elections?
The western world and many Arabic states are strictly against Syrians heading to the polls. The Group of Friends of the Syrian People - an international diplomatic collective including countries like Germany, the United States and France - condemn the elections as illegitimate. The group says the government in Syria's capital of Damascus violates the Geneva peace agreement, and called the presidential elections "a parody of democracy."
Which candidates are up for election?
Three names will be listed on the ballots: current President Bashar al-Assad, former Minister of State Hassan al-Nouri and parliamentarian Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar. However, a reelection of President Bashar al-Assad is considered to be certain.
According to Barnes-Dacey, al-Assad introducing political reforms such as having a multi-candidate presidential election is supposed to be a signal: "Look, there are multiple candidates here, we are reforming, and this is a legitimate election. The blame is not on us but on the opposition that refuses to engage with the more open political process that we're trying to establish."
However, the competing candidates for the presidential office are only mannequins, according to Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Haid from the civil society organization Dawlaty.
"At least one of them said that Assad is actually his leader and he would do the same Assad is doing right now," Haid told DW in an interview. The Syrian organization Dawlaty, which is based in Beirut, is campaigning for democracy and human rights.
Representatives of the exile opposition weren't allowed to run as candidates, even if they had accepted the election process. According to election law, candidates must have lived continually in Syria for the past 10 years.
Where can Syrians vote?
Given that the fragmented rebel groups reject the election, only Syrians living in areas controlled by the government can cast a vote. The millions of refugees and internally displaced people who are on the run within and outside of Syria won't be able to vote, according to Barnes-Dacey. A huge segment of civil society is moreover wondering why they even should vote if Assad is guaranteed to win.
In many countries, such as Lebanon and Brazil, Syrian expats did vote on May 28 after having registered at Syrian embassies. Germany and France, however, didn't allow Syrian embassies to collect votes. The SNC welcomed Germany's and France's rejection of the elections.
How significant are the elections for the ongoing conflict?
According to Haid, discussion about a political solution will be more difficult after the presidential elections. By claiming a new term in office under these circumstances, Assad is closing the door on political dialogue, Haid said, adding that this perpetuates armed conflict.
Given the nature of the fight on the ground and the fierceness of the division in Syrian society, the elections are of secondary importance, Barnes-Dacey said. What is more significant is what happens on the battle field.