Syrians vote Wednesday in a presidential election where few doubt Bashar al-Assad will extend his grip on power for a fourth term, in a war-torn country mired in economic crisis.
The controversial vote is the second election since the start of a decade-long conflict, which killed more than 388,000 people and displaced half of the pre-war population.
Huge election posters glorifying Assad have mushroomed in two-thirds of the country under government rule.
With overseas opponents barred from running and no votes in swathes of territory out of his control, Assad faces only two virtually unknown opponents.
Syrians will be able to vote at more than 12,000 polling stations, which will be open from 7:00 a.m. (04:00 GMT) to 7:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. GMT).
The results are expected to be announced by Friday evening, 48 hours after the polls close.
Voting takes place amid the lowest levels of violence since 2011 – but with an economy in freefall.
More than 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the dollar, with soaring inflation.
# photo1Assad’s campaign slogan, “Hope Through Work”, speaks of the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country, requiring billions of dollars in funding.
– “Opposition tolerated” –
Assad, a 55-year-old trained ophthalmologist, was first elected by referendum in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who ruled Syria for 30 years.
# photo2He faces former Minister of State Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Merhi, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, long described by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.
Assad refrained from holding campaign media events and interviews.
But he issued a general amnesty for thousands of prisoners earlier this month, in addition to a series of decrees aimed at improving economic conditions.
Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Khaled al-Rahmoun said on Tuesday that 18 million Syrians at home and abroad were officially eligible to vote.
But the actual number of voters will likely be smaller, with large swathes of Syria outside Assad’s control, and many refugees excluded.
Last week, thousands of Syrian refugees and expatriates voted early in embassies in their host countries.
But Syrians who fled the country illegally – and therefore could not show an exit stamp in their passports – were not allowed to vote.
Several countries opposing Assad have blocked the vote together, including Turkey and Germany, which host large populations of Syrian refugees.
– «Farce» –
The United States and the European Union said on Tuesday the elections were “neither free nor fair” and Syria’s fragmented opposition called the polls a “farce”.
But they will watch helplessly as Assad prepares to renew his grip on power.
In rebel-held northwest Syria, home to three million people, opposition activists on Tuesday distributed mock campaign posters ridiculing Assad in protest.
The Kurdish authorities in the northeast, who have created a semi-autonomous zone, have declared themselves “not affected” by the election.
In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Assad garnered 88% of the vote.
It was Syria’s first election in nearly 50 years, with Assad and his father Hafez renewing their terms in successive referendums.
This took place as the war raged, with airplanes bombing rebel areas in Aleppo and fierce fighting in Hama, Damascus, Idlib and Daraa.
This time around, the front lines are relatively calm.
“Assad runs the risk of being the only certainty in a country in ruins,” said a European diplomat in the wake of Syrian affairs.
© 2021 AFP