Syrians voted on Monday in the country’s first “multiparty” parliamentary election in five decades, held against a backdrop of violence and described as a sham by the opposition.
Voters casted their ballots in some neighborhoods of the capital and various other regions, while in opposition strongholds, residents boycotted the poll, holding protests instead and a general strike.
The election went ahead despite the unrest that has swept Syria since March 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad resorted to force in a bid to quash a revolt against his autocratic regime.
The vote, initially scheduled for last September, was postponed till May 7,,, after Assad announced the launch of a reform process backed by a referendum.
“I think these elections will bring a definitive end to the crisis,” said Shahba Karim, 18, after casting her vote in central Damascus.
But others were unimpressed.
“I voted no in the constitutional referendum but this time I won’t cast a ballot because by doing so it would mean I agree with the process which is not the case,” said Fady, a 47-year-old media worker.
A total of 7,195 candidates were registered to run for the 250 seats, state news agency SANA said.
Pro-regime parties led by the Baath are represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
The opposition described the vote as a sham and a ploy by the government to buy time and dupe the international community into believing the regime is serious about reforms.
“Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution, an electoral law, or to run elections,” the exiled opposition Syrian National Council said.
Several towns and villages across the country, including some neighborhoods of Damascus, held demonstrations, boycotted the vote and organized a general strike amid reports of continued violence.
Regime forces killed seven civilians on Monday in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, Idlib in the northwest and the central provinces of Hama and Homs, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Clashes between soldiers and rebels were also reported in several areas of the Hama province as well as in other regions, the Britain-based Observatory added.
“There are no signs of a national election in or the surrounding areas,” activist Nureddin al-Abdo told AFP via Skype.
“The regime is trying to delude itself that it still holds power by organizing these fake elections, but it is only capable of ruling with tanks.”
Another activist, Musaab al-Hamadi, told AFP via Skype: “The regime is dancing on the corpses of the martyrs. These elections are an insulting lie.”
Shops were closed and streets empty in several areas of Hama, Idlib, northern Aleppo, Daraa in the south of the country and Damascus itself, according to activists.
State television reported high turnout in several of the same regions.
“In Aleppo, only the main polling stations were full, and that was because the authorities brought its loyalists in to vote,” Aleppo-based activist Mohammad al-Halabi said.
“But the rest of the polling stations, where there was no media presence, were empty,” he said.
The election was rigged, according to Halabi. “Anyone could go in to a polling booth and vote 20 times,” he said.
Political specialists believe the elections will not make any significant political changes in Syria, where a tenuous U.N.-backed ceasefire that came into effect April 12 has failed to take hold.
“The elections are a step in a void and will not lead to any change in the political landscape and security of Syria,” Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based al-Quds Center for Political Studies, told AFP.
Meanwhile, the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Monday that more than 9,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last 14 months, which is a “totally unacceptable and intolerable situation.”
The priority for the United Nations is to deploy a supervision mission as soon as possible, Ban said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He said the violence by all parties must stop.
It is taking place “amid a lack of security, continued killings and violence... while (many) are detained, suffering or displaced,” Rantawi said, dismissing the elections as “media propaganda.”
But Syria’s Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said that voting on Monday was an act of defiance.
“By taking part in the election, Syrians are defying the campaign of terrorism and aggression led by international and regional parties implicated in a terrorist war against our country,” he said in a statement.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly blamed the violence on “armed terrorist groups” and outside parties.
The Syrian opposition has dismissed the vote as a sham.
Bashar al-Haraki, a member of the Syrian National Council, the principal opposition coalition, has labeled the elections a “farce which can be added to the regime’s masquerade.”
Monday’s vote also comes as U.N. observers are deployed in Syria to monitor a tenuous ceasefire, in place since April 12, and as deadly violence continues to rock the country.
On Sunday, troops shelled rebel positions in the Arida village in central Homs province, wounding several people and destroying houses, the Britain-based group reported.
Regime forces also raided a town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Sunday, making arrests.
On Saturday two bomb blasts rocked Damascus and Syria’s second city Aleppo, where at least five people were killed, the Observatory said as the opposition blamed the regime for the bloodshed.