DAMASCUS: President Bashar Assad announced he will run for a new seven-year term in Syria's June elections, a vote that he is widely expected to win in the midst of a civil war that began as an uprising against his rule.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies swiftly condemned Assad's long-expected decision. Anti-government activists bitterly recalled that it was the president's refusal to leave power that ignited the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 150,000 people and displaced more than one-third of the prewar population of 23 million since it began three years ago.
The government has presented the June 3 vote as the solution to the conflict: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, then he will step aside.
But the president's opponents have rejected the notion that an election will reflect popular will. Voting will be in possible in parts of the country under rebel control, and will be difficult in other areas where fighting rages. In government strongholds where balloting will be possible, there would be deep questions over the fairness of any vote.
Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham announced Assad's candidacy on state television. The statement was followed by blaring broadcasts of nationalistic music praising God. State TV also ran a brief biography of Assad, and quoted him as asking Syrians not to resort to celebratory gunfire.
Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000, had long suggested he would seek another term in office, reflecting his determination to show he is the legitimate leader of Syria.
Six other presidential hopefuls have declared their candidacies, but analysts dismiss them as little more than stooges to provide a veneer of legitimacy.
"He is the seventh contender, but realistically he is the only contender," Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said of Assad. "The others were part of the decoration process to give the impression that the Syrian presidential elections this time will be different."
But the elections won't be enough to heal a bitterly divided nation seeped in blood after three years of conflict.
"If he (Assad) had announced this at the beginning of the revolution, it would have saved all that blood that was shed," said activist who uses the name Abu Akram al-Shami, speaking over Skype from Damascus.
Al-Shami said he and other activists would ignore the vote, adding that their war now wasn't just against Assad, but "the whole regime."
"Even if, let's say, he (Assad) left office, as things now stand his regime would continue," al-Shami added.
Syria's opposition abroad has called on Assad to step down in favor of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until free presidential and parliament elections can be held.
Louay Safi, a spokesman for the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the elections indicated Assad had no intention of reaching a political resolution that would end the war.
"The political elite in Damascus is willing to sacrifice our country for one person - Bashar Assad - to stay in power," Safi said. "This is bad for the Syrian people, because it means that this will be a protracted conflict, and more people will die."
The Coalition took part in two rounds of peace talks with Syrian officials earlier this year. The two sides parted in February without making any significant headway to resolve the conflict.
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry described Assad's candidacy and the election as "a tragic absurdity and parody."
"No legitimacy could come out of this phantom-election in a devastated country. Bashar Assad is responsible for the death of 150,000 people," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal. "Only a political solution and the establishment of a transitional government with full executive powers... will allow for an exit from the crisis."
Syrian officials have brushed aside questions of how the government intends to hold any kind of credible vote.
A Syrian lawmaker told The Associated Press last week that there would not be voting centers in areas controlled by the opposition.
The elections' timing suggests that Assad, who has been supported by Iran and Russia, wants to give himself electoral legitimacy while he is militarily strong. A punishing offensive by government forces has strengthened Assad's once-tenuous hold on power. The government appears to be aiming to try to have key urban areas under the state's control before the vote is held.
Activists and analysts said that only Syrians who support Assad are likely to vote.
The Syrian president has support among the country's minority Christian and Muslim groups who form some one-third of the population. They have huddled behind Assad, fearing for their future should hard-line Sunni Muslim rebels come to power.
While the Syrian uprising began as largely peaceful demonstrations against Assad's rule in March 2011, it has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters.
Assad also enjoys the support of some middle class urban Sunni Muslims who are fearful of the hard-liners. Many other Syrians who support neither party may vote for Assad, seeing him as the best choice on a plate of unpalatable options.
Although Syria enjoyed liberal, albeit tumultuous, parliamentary democracy in the fifties, most of the country's citizens were born under the rule of the Assad family. Bashar took over from his late father, Hafez, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
Both Assads were elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door to other candidates. But the new law placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run. It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.