Global Politics

They know who's going to win, but Syrian refugees are still flocking to the polls

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As the sun went down, voters at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut filled out ballots by the light of cellphones and flashlights. The Floors of the polling station were littered with scraps of discarded ballots.

Credit:

Susannah George

Voting began on Wednesday for Syrian expats and refugees wanting to cast their ballots in the country's presidential election. The election takes place in Syria next week.

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Tens of thousands of supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad have voted at embassies abroad in the election, widely expected to give him a third seven-year term. The West dismisses the election as a sham.

In Lebanon, an unexpectedly large turnout forced officials to keep polls open until midnight and to extend voting to another day. 

Traffic along the highway leading to the embassy was at a standstill for much of the day Wednesday, clogged with voters traveling by taxi, on foot and by the busload to cast their ballots. 

By evening, long after the polls were originally supposed to close, the road was still congested; a handful of minibuses packed with Assad supporters lurched along in the stop and go traffic. 

Chanting, "God, Syria and Assad only," one busload of Syrians emptied out onto the side of the highway to make the remainder of the journey on foot. Past a series of checkpoints and roadblocks, the men and women joined a steady stream of people making their way single file into the heavily guarded embassy. 

Ballot distribution and collection is haphazard, crowds of men holding up their ID cards jostle up against a metal barricade, overwhelmed embassy personnel yell back instructions. 

One family is standing off to the side, bewildered. I ask them if they're waiting to vote. One man shakes his head, "too many people," he says. "We're not sure if we can do it today or no."

Samir is originally from the ancient Syrian Christian town of Maaloula. He and his family fled to Beirut nearly two years ago, where he's lived ever since. 

In his hand are his family’s ballots, but doesn't know where to cast them. Antoinette, Samir's aunt stands to his side. She explains that a stable Syria with Assad as president is better than any alternative.

"We prefer to go back to Syria with Assad as president, than to live outside our country," she says, gesturing to the crowd. "We used to have a very nice life, so why we have to do the opposite thing."

While there are two other candidates on the ballots being handed out, none of the voters here mention them. Samir says his vote is both for Assad and against the opposition. "Both, because, the other side, they are fighting us, they are supporting the terrorists," he says. "So this is why we are supporting President Assad and we are against the other side."

The sun's gone down and all around us people are filling out ballots, those who can't find space under lit tents are using flashlights and cell phones. 

Lacking any formal direction, people pass along instructions by word of mouth. One man tells another what information to write on the back of the ballot: Your name, the names of your mother, father and grandfather and your national ID number. Election officials say this data will prevent fraud even if it doesn't allow voters any political privacy. 

By 10 at night, the mob clamoring to vote is still growing. 

One solider, his voice scratchy at the end of a long day, yells for people to step back, then throws a handful of colorful ballots into the crowd. One man emerges and proudly show's me he's pocketed a handful to keep as souvenirs. 

Antoinette, the woman from Maaloula, is still standing off to the side. She jokes that if she isn't able to vote for Assad here tonight she'll sleep at the embassy until polls open in the morning.

"We love him, why, not?" she asks, laughing. 

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    Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al Assad gathered at the Syrian Embassy in Beirut late into the night Wednesday to cast their absentee ballots in Syria's upcoming Presidential election.

    Credit:

    Susannah George