YARZE, Lebanon: Tens of thousands of Syrians flooded the main thoroughfare leading to their embassy to cast their ballots for the Syrian presidential election Wednesday, severely blocking traffic and leaving many incensed at the lack of organization.
Some got trampled by the throngs eager to vote and others suffered from dehydration and on occasions fainting spells under the heavy heat of the midday sun. The unexpectedly high voter turnout, numbering around 80,000, prompted the embassy to extend polls until midnight Thursday.
Traffic was gridlocked at the Fayadieh road leading to Yarze, as many voters waved the Syrian government’s double-starred flags along congested roads. Some flaunted T-shirts bearing portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad, others opted to carry posters of the incumbent president.
Among them was Abdul Kadir Akid, a Damascus native who made the trip to Yarze from Zahle. “I came alone in a car, but stopped in Dahr al-Baydar and walked from here,” he said of the three-hour journey. “I did it for Bashar Assad.”
In south Lebanon, many Syrians boarded buses to make their way to the embassy, with many admitting off the record that they were participating out of fear.
“I am scared that they may put my name at the border and prevent me from going to Syria to see my family when I need to [if i don’t vote],” said a Syrian national, requesting to remain anonymous.
However, several pro-governmentSyrian activists dismissed the allegation that voters were intimidated into participating.
Many expressed displeasure at the polls’ lack of coordination, as some arriving as early as 4 a.m. had yet to cast their ballots by noon due to crowds and ensuing scuffles with police. However, the majority said it would not hinder their support for Assad, whom they consider the only candidate capable of ending the protracted Syria crisis.
On one occasion, a police officer perched atop the embassy gate descended to beat away voters attempting to climb over the temporarily sealed door, as other security personnel regularly roared into loudspeakers demanding that they stand back.
Army soldiers directed the incoming hordes to sit down and wait.
Mariam, originally from Tal Kalakh, grudgingly decided to stoop to the side of the road until the mob subsided. “All the people just started marching like it was Armageddon,” she said.
“There is no coordination from the Lebanese side, no one is organizing this event,” she said. “How are 2 million people [the estimated population of Syrians in Lebanon] supposed to vote in one place in one day?”
It was a question that eluded many. Voter Anwar al-Masri said it would have been more effective to set up polling stations across the country. “People are coming here from the north, the south and the Bekaa Valley,” he said.
Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim Ali told Al-Manar TV that “large numbers were expected, but not to this extent,” thanking security forces for “facilitating the voting process.”
“The number of voters who came to the embassy today reflects Syria’s strength and the end of conspiracies,” he added.
Speaking to another media outlet, Ali said the number of Syrians who voted in Lebanon Wednesday exceeded 80,000.
Lebanese motorists complained about the heavy traffic that left them late for school and work, irking the March 14 coalition and the Kataeb party, with the former calling for the expulsion of Syrians not fleeing persecution and the latter for asking Ali to leave.
Inside the embassy walls, Hasan, from Raqqa, sat squatting on the ground, lethargic and oblivious to the commotion around him. “Don’t go there,” he said, pointing to the bottlenecked polling center. “You’ll die.”
While some overtly supported Assad, others seemed unwilling to elaborate. The Daily Star was
informed by Syrians and aid workers in the Bekaa Valley of rumors circulating within the refugee community that not participating would amount to the regime restricting entry to Syria and possible detention. Randa has been residing in Lebanon for 20 years, but Wednesday marked her first time exercising the right to vote as a citizen, “because we are supposed to,” she said.
Rania, who had fainted earlier and trembled as she spoke, said rumor was enough for her to come to the polling station from Bchamoun.
“Of course, I’m voting for Bashar,” she said. “Not because I love him, but to protect ourselves, my children and husband, because I am scared that they might be arrested or beaten [if I don’t].”
Ali showed The Daily Star his ballot form with a check under Assad’s name. On the back he jotted down the names of his family members, “Just in case.” When questioned why he was voting for the incumbent, “Ask someone else,” was his only reply.
Some vocal opposition supporters opted out of the election, including Mohammad Khodr in the northern border region of Wadi Khaled. “Of course I won’t vote,” he said over the phone. “I don’t see any reason to.” Yahya Faris, in a tented community in Bar Elias, concurred: “Elections are meant to reflect democracy, what kind of a democracy is Syria today?” he asked.
Syrian dissident Michel Kilo, a member of the National Syrian Coalition, said the polls were illegitimate due to the ongoing war, adding that he received information Hezbollah was threatening Syrians and forcing them to vote.
“The Syrians never voted in such intensity before, there are Syrians [who have been] living in Lebanon for a long time and they fear going to Syria without voting so that the regime would not reprimand them,” he said.
Syrians who arrived via illegal crossings were not permitted to vote, as those without entry permits are technically considered members of their original constituency. Rumors that Syrians who arrived from unofficial crossings in Arsal would be bussed back in order to vote were dismissed by local aid worker Mohammad Ezzidine, citing overwhelming opposition support in the area.
Despite the high turnout in Lebanon, which is hosting 1.5 million refugees, Syrians showed less enthusiasm for the vote in Jordan, where dozens gathered outside the embassy in Amman to protest. Nevertheless long queues of Syrian voters were reported in Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, with France and Germany outright banning the polls. – Additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari