DAMASCUS, Syria — In the middle of a bloody revolution that is tearing at the fabric of Syrian society, Bashar al-Assad on Monday engaged in what many regarded to be a desperate exercise in window dressing: parliamentary elections.
To be sure, even as the international community blasts the regime for violently cracking down on the opposition, Assad’s backers praised today’s poll. Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said the elections were held in “an atmosphere of democracy and political pluralism.”
Pro-government “analyst” Taleb Ibrahim argued on Press TV, Iran’s English language broadcaster, the the election was a sign that “a culture of democracy” was emerging.
Last June, the same commentator declared it a “religious duty” for Syrians to kill anti-government protesters.
Ibrahim added this time that the elections “give the message to the international world that Syria is able to make a political resolution itself. The new government will be more different than other governments of the last decades.”
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Many Syrians, however, were unwilling to go along with that logic. Opposition groups had called for a boycott, and the people largely complied.
State news agency SANA reported a “wide turnout” of voters.
But across the country, from Daraa in the far south, Deir Ezzour, in the east, through the central cities of Homs and Hama and up to the far northwest of Idlib — all of which have witnessed ongoing violence between regime forces and armed rebels over the past few weeks — activists said most voters boycotted the poll.
“After we paid the price of thousands of martyrs, and injured and jailed activists, we will not participate in today’s silly play,” said Mohammad al-Zuaby, 30, an opposition activist from Daraa. “The regime can organize an election and open many polling stations but they cannot force Syrians from their homes to vote.”
Opposition suburbs and the satellite towns that ring Damascus were similarly defiant. GlobalPost counted at least 10 neighborhoods around the capital that actively boycotted the election.
In Berze, an opposition stronghold in Damascus, a polling station had registered just 70 voters by 3 p.m., while its list of eligible voters stood at about 3,000. Two uniformed policemen and a number of plain clothed secret police stood guard outside.
“Why should I vote?” asked Mahmoud, a laborer from Berze. “The parliament cannot even ask the Minister of Electricity about the blackouts, so how can MPs make any real change? All the candidates are either Baathists, Baath-controlled parties or corrupt businessmen with ties to security services.”
Indeed, despite voting booths and other trappings of democracy, there was little reason for voters to expect any real change.
The ruling Baath Party now heads a coalition of nine that dominate the 250-seat parliament. Membership in the coalition requires support for the Baath and its policies.
In February, a new constitution allowed the formation of new political parties. Nine such parties emerged, although four of them withdrew prior to the poll. And though SANA, the state news agency, reported that 7,195 candidates had registered to stand, only 46 come from the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, the largest opposition coalition.
Damascus-based political observers expect the Baath-led coalition to maintain its two-thirds majority in parliament.
“President Assad promised his allies Russia and China that he would implement real democratic changes in the country to water down the people’s rage,” said one Damascus-based analyst who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely.
“The parliamentary elections were the last card Assad had in his hand and he did not play it well. Even independent citizens who were gambling on Assad’s reforms will lose their last hope.”
The analyst criticized the vote for the absence of independent monitors and a lack of permanent marking ink in many polling stations used to prevent voter fraud, also a serious problem during February’s referendum.
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For the party faithful, though, today’s election confirmed the country is moving in the right direction.
“I think democracy is participating in elections, not fighting the army and setting off car bombs in Syrian cities,” said 22-year-old Reem, a university student originally from an Allawite village near the port of Lattakia, the heartland of the branch of Shiite Islam that dominate the Syrian regime.
“The Syrian parliament is for national, honest people, not for the agents and spies who serve foreign agendas and want to turn Syria into a religious state run by the Muslim Brotherhood and radical salafists.”
The Assad regime has long portrayed the opposition as backed by foreign states, particularly Saudi Arabia, and of being dominated by hardline Islamists.