Assad seeks to consolidate power in parliament elections

The ruling Baath Party and the National Progressive Front are assured of certain victory.

Syrians across the country began voting for a new parliament Sunday in elections that few expected would do much more than further consolidate the regime's power. The campaign slogans posted on buildings, trees and buses across the capital promise reform, transparency and prosperity, but there was a lack of enthusiasm and some criticism - even in Syria's official newspapers - of the candidates' lack of detailed political programs. Turnout until midday at the nearly 11,000 voting centers across the country was low - not surprising for Syria, where parliament has no major say in policy-making. Voting will continue Monday, and results are not expected before Wednesday. The ruling Baath Party and the National Progressive Front - a cluster of nine small parties allied with it - are assured of certain victory, regardless of the turnout in the election, since Syria's constitution reserves two-thirds of legislature for candidates from the ruling coalition. The remaining seats will be filled by candidates running independently, but their candidacy must be pre-approved by the government. Perhaps sensing people's apathy, the government has called for a heavy turnout. In a speech broadcast by Syrian Television Saturday night, Interior Minister Bassam Abdel-Majid urged people to "exercise their electoral right" by choosing the most qualified candidates. "I am voting because it is my national duty," said Ahmed Fetouri, a 68-year-old retired teacher. "Everyone who loves Syria must vote." However, Mohammed Arnous, 39, said he was angered by the "haphazard" way people were voting. "We should really think about who we are voting for," he said before entering a balloting station in downtown Damascus, where voters were being handed election lists to put in the ballot box. The elections, held every four years, come at a time when Syria is seeking to overcome its international isolation. President Bashar Assad wants to capitalize on the event to project an image of openness. His government has touted the election as a showcase of Syrian democracy. But Syrian opposition groups have called for a boycott of the balloting which they describe as a farce. The United States has also voiced deep skepticism. "We don't have high expectations that this parliamentary election will either be free or fair," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last month. During a briefing in Washington this week, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs J. Scott Carpenter described the vote as meaningless and "a missed opportunity" for change. Safwan Qudsi, a senior member of the coalition group allied with the ruling party, said his comments were unacceptable and a "blatant interference in Syria's internal affairs." Some 2,500 candidates are running for seats in the 250-seat National Assembly in this country of 18.6 million people. Authorities have said that around 7 million citizens hold election cards. Among the first tasks facing the new parliament is approving the Baath Party nomination for the Syrian president for a second seven-year term in office. Assad is hoping this week's election will boost his standing ahead of a July referendum on renewing his mandate, even though he is expected to win the summer vote easily. Assad is also seeking to strengthen his ranks in the face of rising pressure to establish an international tribunal to try the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A UN investigation into the killing has implicated Syrian officials in the Feb. 2005 assassination, charges which Syria denies. Last year's crackdown on pro-democracy and human rights activists which landed renowned writer Michel Kilo and lawyer Anwar al-Bunni in jail has all but ensured that no dissenting voices figure in the elections. "The election is nothing but an occasion for the Syrian regime to reinforce its iron grip over Syrian society," said Maamoun Homsi, a former legislator who spent five years in jail for his criticism of the government. "How can we talk about free elections when Syrian intellectuals and human rights activists are languishing in prison cells," said Homsi, who has left Syria and spoke over the telephone to The Associated Press. He and former legislator Riyad Seif were stripped of parliamentary immunity in 2001, during a clampdown that marked the end of the "Damascus Spring" - a period that followed Assad's accession to power in July 2000 and allowed pro-democracy activists a brief measure of freedom to debate reforms. Both served five-year prison terms, convicted on charges of harming national interests. Together with other exiled Syrian regime opponents and a handful of government critics inside Syria, they have now called on Syrians to boycott the election. But in an Arab world where some countries do not even have elections, even the fact that elections are held and the mere presence of government critics marks a significant stride from Syria's past rigid control.