Syria holds elections despite civil war | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 03.06.2014
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Middle East

Syria holds elections despite civil war

The country is racked by war; millions of citizens have been displaced. Nonetheless, Syria is holding a presidential election on Tuesday (03.06.2014). There are three candidates, but the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

An election broadcast on Syrian television: dramatic music; tanks driving across fields and up hills; men in military uniforms, machine guns at the ready, running. Soldiers turn their friendly gaze to the viewers and urge them to go to the polls. "Your vote is your weapon. We will defend your decision - we're all going to vote."

The campaign broadcast doesn't show who the soldiers are fighting. It's also unclear why the Syrian people are being asked to deploy their vote as a weapon.

Opposition excluded

Three men in keffiyehs casting their votes at the Syrian Embassy in Amman 28.05.2014 (PHOTO/KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo: KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Syrians in exile, like these voters in Amman, Jordan, cast their ballots earlier in the week

This Tuesday (03.06.2014), Syria will be electing a new president. It will be the first time that more than one candidate has been allowed to run. However, the new voting law decreed that candidates must have lived in Syria 10 ten years without interruption, that they must not have been found guilty of a crime, and that they must have the support of at least 23 members of parliament. In this way, the law ensures that members of the opposition are excluded from standing.

It is generally assumed that the former head of state, Bashar al-Assad, will be reelected. The 48-year-old ophthalmologist has ruled Syria since 2000. His father, Hafez al-Assad - from whom he inherited leadership - ruled for almost 30 years before him.

The other two candidates are virtual unknowns. Maher al-Hajjar, a member of the Syrian parliament, belongs to a Communist party close to the regime. Hassan al-Nuri is a businessman and former parliamentarian.

The election is being orchestrated in the state media and media that are close to the regime. In a survey carried out by the official Syrian news agency Sana on the streets of Damascus, passersby spoke of the forthcoming election with enthusiasm. There was a great deal of talk about democracy, the free will of the electorate, and the people's expectations. One young woman said, "I want a president who will bring security to Syria and adhere to the national and patriotic principles. Because Syria belongs to everyone."

Assad's fight against terrorists

Anti-Assad protesters with a Syrian flag at a demonstration in Berlin, 28.05.2014 (Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa)

Opposition supporters protest that the election is a farce

According to state media reports, election preparations are in full swing. Polling station overseers are being sworn in. The chairman of the highest election commission assured the Sana news agency that the commission was independent, and that none of the candidates is able to influence the result.

Bashar al-Assad's appearances took place almost exclusively on television, for example in a meeting with relatives of Syrian army soldiers who had been killed in action. The images show a beaming president and his wife being cheered by Syrian families. The official line is that the Syrian army is fighting a heroic war against terrorists.

The uprising against the Assad regime began three years ago with peaceful demonstrations, initially calling for political reform and later for ousting of the president. Over the months that followed, parts of the opposition took up arms. Today, Syria is mired in civil war.

A country at war

Syrian refugees arriving at the port of Benghazi, Libya, in 2011 (Foto: Julien Muguet/IP3/MaxPPP)

More than 3 million Syrians have been displaced by the war: The majority have fled abroad

It is still unclear how the election can be held in a country that is in a state of war. According to the United Nations, 40 percent of the Syrian population is currently displaced. Around 3 million Syrians are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as having fled to neighboring countries.

Another 6.5 million people are internally displaced. Syrian human rights activists say the conflict has so far claimed more than 160,000 lives. The independent Violation Documentation Center in Syria states that in April this year, an average of 97 people were killed every day.

Parts of Syria, such as the north and east of the country, are controlled by different factions of the armed opposition and by Kurdish groups. Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city, is divided between the forces of the opposition and the regime.

Vote out of fear

Election Posters in Damascus encouraging President al-Assad to run for a third term (Photo: REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri)

With the opposition unable to field any candidates, Bashar al-Assad's re-election is a foregone conclusion

Nonetheless, the Syrian journalist Bashar Youssef believes that Syrians will vote in the regime-controlled areas. It will be like previous elections in Syria, before the start of the revolution, said Youssef. Students and civil servants were forced to vote.

"Civil servants found that they were not allowed to take a day off on the day of the election," the young journalist explained. He added that there are also rumors that, on election day, people will be controlled at checkpoints to see whether or not they have already voted. "Lots of people will then vote out of fear," he said.

The Syrian opposition is completely boycotting the election. The Syrian National Coalition - the biggest Syrian opposition coalition abroad - issued a press release describing the poll as an electoral farce, the sole purpose of which is to keep Assad in office.

Youssel thinks that the fighting will continue. "Maybe the elections and Assad's victory will give supporters of the regime symbolic satisfaction," he said. But he added that in the eyes of the opposition, both armed and nonviolent, President Assad lost his legitimacy back in 2011 when the revolution began.

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