Assad waves to crowd 298.
(photo credit: AP)
Posters plastered on walls of the capital and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers proclaimed "We love you" as Syrians voted in a referendum to endorse President Bashar Assad - the only candidate - for a second term.
But the country's tiny opposition boycotted the voting Sunday, saying Syrians should have a choice in who governs them. And critics of Assad's regime accuse him of clamping down on pro-democracy activists, rampant corruption and mass arrests, though many are fearful of openly expressing dissent.
The regime is also under intense international scrutiny, accused of meddling in Iraq, supporting Palestinian militant groups and involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005. Under Assad's rule, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon following an outcry over Hariri's killing.
Still the Syrian president is assured of another seven-year term in a referendum that gave voters just one choice: a green circle to approve Assad or a gray one to oppose his second term. In his first referendum, he received 97.29 percent approval.
The 42-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist became president shortly after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, in 2000. Earlier this month, the Parliament, dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated Assad for another term.
Hopes were high among Syrians when the young leader first came to power, leading a campaign to modernize the country with economic reforms and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.
But he has since cracked down on pro-democracy activists, drawing criticism from human rights groups. In the last two months, six government critics and human rights campaigners were convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.
At a congress of Assad's Baath Party in 2005, delegates endorsed the idea of independent political parties and relaxing emergency laws in place since 1963. But those promises have yet to be realized.
Members of the Damascus Declaration, the broadest coalition of Syrian opposition groups, boycotted Sunday's referendum, said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a spokesman for the Arab Socialist Union. He said the opposition, which remains small in Syria, has demanded constitutional amendments calling for increased political representation of other parties.
"We called for the amendment ... so that nominations could not be restricted to the Baath Party and give a chance to other candidates to run for presidency," Abdul-Azim said.
Still top Syrian officials said the referendum was a message to the world that Syrians support Assad's policies.
Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told reporters after casting his vote that Assad's leadership is a "national guarantee" because of his "vision, wisdom and courage."
But over the past few years, Syria has faced enormous international pressure over its role in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.
The US accuses Syria of looking the other way while fighters from many countries cross its border to join al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in Iraq. President George W. Bush's administration has attempted to isolate Syria, imposing sanctions and avoiding direct contacts.
A U.N. investigation into the suicide truck bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others in Beirut in February 2005 concluded that the killing's complexity suggested Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services played a role. Syria denies involvement.
Assad's political troubles are likely to be compounded once the United Nations establishes an international tribunal to try Hariri's killers, something the Syrian government continues to resist.
Syria is also accused of supporting a number of militant groups, including the Islamic Hezbollah faction in Lebanon and Palestinian radicals.
Assad also has alienated Arab powerhouses like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, strengthened his alliance with US enemy Iran, and allowed the relationship with neighboring Lebanon to deteriorate to the lowest level in decades.
Accompanied by his wife, Assad voted Sunday morning at the state-run Damascus University. He did not speak to reporters afterward.
Several voters who spoke to The Associated Press praised the president.
"Yes and millions of yes to Assad who has brought peace and security to Syria," said Hiyam Attiyah, 41. "He is the best to represent Syria because he has wise and decisive stands and works for modernizing the country."
There have also been a number of gatherings over past weeks to show support for the government in the run-up to the referendum.
The official news agency, SANA, said Parliament will announce the results of the referendum on Monday.