Syrians begin voting in referendum endorsing Assad

Most expected to support Syrian president for second term; voter: "Yes to the one who has stood in the face of US plans."

assad referendum 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
assad referendum 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Syrian President Bashar Assad cast his vote at a polling station at Damascus University on Sunday as part of a one-day public referendum to endorse him for a second term and bolster his autocratic rule. Accompanied by his wife and wearing a dark blue suit, Assad, who is the sole candidate and guaranteed a victory, did not speak to reporters after he voted. Millions of other Syrians are also expected at the polls Sunday. Most of the nearly 12 million eligible voters, out of Syria's 18.6 million population, are expected to support Assad's re-election to a second, seven-year term. Though Assad's name is the only one on the ballot, voters can either approve or reject a his second term. On the ballot, voters can pick either a green circle to approve Assad, or a gray one to oppose his second term. The 42-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist became president seven years ago after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad. Earlier this month, the parliament, dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated Assad for another term. Some 15,000 polling stations across the country opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT), and the results could be announced by Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid as early as Monday. Many Syrians expressed their support for Assad, including voter Bassam Asfar, 48. "Yes to the one who has stood in the face of US plans and said no to all pressures facing Syria," he said outside a polling station. But members of the Damascus Declaration, the broadest coalition of Syrian opposition groups, boycotted the referendum, said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a spokesman for the Arab Socialist Union. Abdul-Azim said the opposition has demanded constitution amendments calling for increased political representation from 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," he said. Syria has witnessed celebrations over the past weeks in preparation for the referendum, and more are expected after the results are released. On Thursday, about 300,000 people jammed Damascus streets in a rally said to have been the largest ever here. Several newspapers also showed their support for Assad. On Sunday, government newspaper Al-Thawra printed a thick, red "Yes" on its front page, saying in an editorial, "We elect you because we love Syria. ... We discovered that you did not accept humiliation." On July 10, 2000, a month after his father's death, Bashar Assad won 97.29 percent approval in an election in which he was the only candidate. The young leader raised high hopes among Syrians when he came to power, leading a campaign to modernize the country with several economic reforms and freeing hundreds of political prisoners. But he has since clamped down on pro-democracy activists, showing the limits of his reforms and attracting harsh criticism from human rights groups. Regime critics point to rampant corruption and mass arrests. In the last two months, six government critics and human rights campaigners were convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison. Assad has also 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. Under his rule, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. 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. But at home, Assad continues to derive confidence from the knowledge that there seems to be no viable alternative to his regime.