Voters were heading to polling stations across Syria, in what the US, Germany and other European countries have slammed as a sham election orchestrated by President Bashar Assad.
Syria's polling stations have opened on Wednesday across government-held areas in a presidential election set to give President Bashar Assad a fourth seven-year term.
The vote, dismissed as a sham by the opposition and Western countries, is the second presidential election since the country's conflict began a decade ago.
An electoral commission member cited by Syria's state news agency said observers "noticed a large turnout" since polling stations opened at 7 .a.m. (0400 GMT). Stations will close again at 7 p.m. tonight.
Syria's public broadcaster showed people waving Syrian flags and pictures of al-Assad while some chanted his name in front of polling stations.
Assad cast his ballot in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which was one of the main rebel strongholds in the country until 2018.
The incumbent president told reporters at the polling station that he did not give any weight to Western countries' criticism of the elections. "The value of these opinions is zero," he said.
The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy released a statement characterizing Syria's upcoming elections on Wednesday as "neither free nor fair."
The Western nations claim the elections are a fraud orchestrated by incumbent President Bashar Assad, who is virtually certain to win another term in office.
"We denounce the Assad regime's decision to hold an election outside of the framework described by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and we support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegimate," the foreign ministers of the western countries said in the joint statement, which was released on Tuesday.
The foreign ministers said the elections should be put under United Nations supervision "to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability."
The statement said all Syrians should be able to participate in the voting process, including Syrian refugees living abroad. Currently, only Syrians abroad with a valid Syrian passport and an exit stamp from an official border crossing are currently allowed to vote, a rule that excludes many who fled the country.
"Without these elements, this fraudulent election does not represent any progress towards a political settlement," the statement added. "We urge the international community to unequivocally reject this attempt by the Assad regime to regain legitimacy without ending its human rights violations and meaningfully participating in the UN-facilitated political process to end the conflict."
In addition to Assad, Arab Organization for Human Rights head Mahmoud Ahmed Merei and former state minister for People's Assembly Affairs Abdullah Sallum Abdullah are also running for the presidency.
In order to run for president, candidates must be at least 40 years old and have Syrian citizenship by birth. The candidates are not allowed to have dual citizenship or be married to a foreign national.
Candidates must have lived in Syria for at least 10 years prior to the election, and are barred from office if they are convicted of a crime.
The Syrian Supreme Constitutional Court has rejected multiple candidates for not meeting the legal and constitutional requirements, allowing only three of around 50 hopefuls.
Opposition groups against Assad have slammed the elections as illegitimate.
Hadi al-Bahra, the co-chair of the opposition Syrian Constitutional Committee, called the elections "illegal" in comments to German news agency dpa.
"Currently there is no safe and neutral environment that enables all Syrians [...] to exercise their right in casting their vote," al-Bahra said.
The Syrian National Council, an Istanbul-based coalition of opposition figures, has said "the only acceptable election in Syria is the one in which war criminal Bashar Assad won't participate."
Syria has been engulfed in a bloody civil war since 2011, when anti-Assad rebels took up arms against the government amid pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring.
German Middle East expert Kristin Helberg told DW that many Syrians will support Assad as a form of security.
"This election is an opportunity for Syrians to prove their loyalty to the regime, and this is important in a dictatorship and in a police state because it gives you security. It could save your life, it could save you from detention… Many Syrians use this to say that they are on the side of the president, obviously, because they are afraid of being detained or being persecuted," said Helberg.
Helberg said that Assad needed the election to "legitimize his rule internally and externally because especially his very strong ally, Russia, is seeking the rehabilitation of the Assad regime internationally."
She added that there is "growing discontent" in Syria, even by his own supporters, "especially on social media, on the very bad economic conditions and the mismanagement of the government."
The opposition, including some jihadist groups like the militant "Islamic State" (IS), soon took over some parts of the country, challenging the government's authority in cities such as Homs and Aleppo.
At one point, IS militants controled up to a third of Syria, but lost much of its grip by December 2017. The last stronghold fell in March 2019, with the mass surrender of IS fighters and their families.
The Syrian Armed Forces have managed to regain control of most of the country over the past decade, pushing back the rebels. Opposition forces still control one major city, Idlib, which is located in northern Syria.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died since the 2011 uprising, with millions having fled the country.
Assad, an opthamologist by trade, took over the presidency in 2000 from his father, Hafez Assad. At the beginning of his presidency, Assad loosened the strict economic and social controls set by his father.
Assad has taken a hardline stance against the opposition since the Arab Spring, characterizing them as "terrorists."
fb,wd,kbd/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)