Syrians march to support renewal of Assad's mandate

Over 300,000 attend government-sponsored rally ahead of Sunday's referendum, when voters are expected to reelect Assad.

Assad nice 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Assad nice 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians thronged the main square of the capital on Thursday to support a second seven-year term for President Bashar Assad. The rally of more than 300,000 came ahead of a referendum on Sunday when voters are expected to approve a second mandate for Assad, who succeeded his farther Hafez Assad in 2000 at the helm of Syria's autocratic regime. There are no other candidates. The demonstration was headed by a number of Syrian officials and ministers. It was one of several rallies held across Syria since parliament, dominated by the ruling Baath Party, unanimously nominated 41-year-old Assad for a second term. Celebrations have been held throughout the country and are expected to continue until after the referendum. Thursday's demonstration in the central Sabaa Bahrat Square of the capital Damascus, was deemed to be the largest of the ongoing campaign. Parties continue at night, with food and drinks distributed by authorities to people dancing and chanting pro-Assad slogans. Streets in Damascus are lined with posters of Assad and of a large fingerprint as a show of support for the president: In the previous referendum, many Syrians had dipped their thumbs in their own blood or in ink to stamp the referendum bulletin in his favor. Cars decorated with Syrian flags and pictures of Assad jam the streets, and a new song released for the referendum under the title "We love you" blares from speakers of cars and shops. "I will elect Assad, because he is the best," said Sharif Kawkabi, 25, a driver. "Had there been hundreds of candidates for presidency, I would still choose him." Bashar 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 the president has since clamped down on pro-democracy activists, showing the limits of his reforms and attracting harsh criticism from human rights groups.