Damascus, Syria: Bashar al-Assad was re-elected to a fourth term as president of war-ravaged Syria, official results revealed Thursday, despite Western accusations that the polls were “neither free nor fair.”
The controversial vote extending Assad’s grip on power was the second since the start of a decade of civil conflict that has killed more than 388,000 people, displaced millions and damaged the country’s infrastructure.
The speaker of parliament announced Thursday that Assad won 95.1% of the vote cast, beating two virtually unknown challengers.
Former Minister of State Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmud Merhi, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, opposed him, long rejected by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.
On the eve of the elections, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy declared the ballot “neither free nor fair”, and Syria’s fragmented opposition l ‘called it a “farce”.
But few doubted that Assad, 55, an ophthalmologist by training, would be re-elected.
In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Assad won 88% of the vote.
Huge election posters glorifying Assad had proliferated in two-thirds of the country under his control ahead of Wednesday’s poll.
Before the election results were announced, tens of thousands of Syrians gathered in various cities on Thursday to celebrate, waving Syrian flags and carrying pictures of Assad, state media reported.
The festivities erupted after the electoral committee, quoted by local television, said “the counting process has been completed in the majority of Syrian provinces.”
“Tens of thousands of people in the province of Tartus gathered on the city’s waterfront to celebrate” Assad’s expected victory, according to the official SANA news agency.
Some were dancing and beating drums, images broadcast by Syrian television showed.
Thousands of other Syrians gathered in the coastal city of Latakia and in Umayyad Square in the capital Damascus, which along with Tartus and Latakia are strongholds of the regime.
Celebrations were also underway in Aleppo and Sweida in southern Syria, where crowds gathered outside the town hall, state media said.
Houwayda al-Nidal, a 52-year-old doctor, told AFP that Assad’s victory “carries two messages”.
The first is that of a leader who has won the war and will lead the reconstruction, he said, and “the second is for foreigners to show who will lead the political talks after the fighting on the ground is over.”
– Economy in free fall –
Elections were held in government-controlled areas on Wednesday, and state media showed long lines outside polling stations, which remained open five hours past the scheduled closing time.
The vote took place amid the lowest levels of violence since the outbreak of war in 2011 – but with an economy in free fall.
Over 80% of the population lives in poverty and the Syrian pound has plunged against the dollar, causing inflation to spike.
Assad’s campaign slogan, “Hope Through Work”, spoke of the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country, requiring billions of dollars in funding.
He was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for 30 years.
The UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, noted that the elections did not take place as part of the political transition called for by Security Council resolution 2254 which provides for free and fair elections.
“What is needed is a political solution led and owned by the Syrians, facilitated by the United Nations and supported by constructive international diplomacy,” he said.
In rebel-controlled northwest Syria, home to three million people, hundreds took to the streets to protest on Wednesday, an AFP correspondent said.
They carried posters saying: “No legitimacy for Assad and his elections.”
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)