Syrians went to the polls Sunday in a referendum on a new constitution that could end five decades of one-party rule that sparked protests which have taken the country to the verge of civil war.
Earlier this month, President Bashar al-Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March, with the resulting violence killing more than 7,600 people, monitors say.
But the referendum, which opposition forces have called to boycott, has failed to ease global pressure on Assad, with the United States calling it “laughable.”
More than 14 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations, which opened for 12 hours at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).
But with many parts of the country reeling under a campaign to crush the protests, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it is unclear how the ballot can prove to be convincing.
The new constitution, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes Assad’s Baath party “the head of state and society.”
That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.
Calls for boycott
Activists leading the revolt against the decades of Assad family rule have called for a boycott of the vote. In Damascus and suburbs where troops drove out insurgents last month, activists say they will try to hold protests near polling centers and burn copies of the new constitution.
State television showed officials stacking boxes of referendum ballots and preparing voting centers, and citizens interviewed said they planned to vote ‘yes’ in the national interest.
Activists said security forces have stopped people who had ventured out to buy food in Homs, confiscated their Interior Ministry-issued identification cards and informed them the cards can be retrieved at specified polling centres on Sunday.
“They want to force people to vote in this doctored, so-called referendum anyway they can,” activist Mohammad al-Homsi said from Homs.
A purported photocopy of Baath Party internal correspondence directed to the party’s branches across the country said members needed “to gather the biggest party and popular participation in the referendum”.
“Please direct the Baathist comrades and brother citizens to vote ‘yes’ to the new constitution because it expresses the aspirations of the Syrian Arab masses to build your modern state,” said the letter, signed by Mohammad Saeed Bkheitan, the party’s assistant secretary general.
The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots activists’ organization, called on Syrians last week to boycott the referendum, saying it was an attempt by Assad to cover up the crackdown.
The group in a statement said holding a referendum “whose result is known in advance” would not alter the police state that underpins the repression.
The authorities have held two referendums since Bashar inherited power from his late father 12 years ago. The first installed him as president in 2000 with an official 97.29 percent ‘yes’ vote and the second renewed his term seven years later with 97.62 percent of the vote.
The authorities touted the referendums as the ultimate exercise of what they termed popular democracy. Dissidents said they were a sham.
Over 100 killed
As the country prepared to hold a referendum, the government kept up its onslaught, with at least 100 killed on Saturday in a fourth week of bombardments on the central city of Homs and assaults on towns and villages in northern and southern provinces.
“No one is going to vote,” said activist Omar, speaking by Skype from the rebel-held Baba Amro district of Homs.
“This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed,” he added. “More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? ... No one is going to vote.”
Forces loyal to Assad killed at least 100 people in Syria on Saturday in a fourth week of bombardments on the central city of Homs and assaults on towns and villages in northern and southern provinces, the Syrian Network for Human Rights said.
Six women and 10 children were among those killed, the opposition activists’ organization, which documents what it describes as killings by loyalist forces, said in a statement.
It added that the dead included 44 people in Homs and the surrounding countryside, which has been under sustained shelling for more than three weeks.
In Homs, loyalist troops bombarded Sunni Muslim districts, with opposition activists reporting mortar rounds and anti-aircraft fire hitting Old Homs and the districts of Baba Amro, Bab Sbaa and Bab Dreib.
Khalidiya, a neighborhood inhabited by members of Sunni tribes from the Syriac desert east of Homs, also was hit, they said. Thousands of people in Khalidiya turned up on Saturday for the funerals of at least 17 people killed in the bombardment, according to YouTube footage uploaded by activists.
No further evacuation
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was still unable to evacuate distressed civilians from Baba Amro. After a day of talks with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters, it said there were “no concrete results”.
“We continue our negotiations, hoping that tomorrow (Sunday) we will be able to enter Baba Amro to carry out our life-saving operations,” spokesman Hisham Hassan said.
Conditions were nightmarish for some of those trapped by the fighting.
“We have hundreds of wounded people crammed into houses. People die from blood loss. We just aren’t capable of treating everyone,” activist Nader Husseini said via Skype.