BEIRUT: Many Syrians will cast their votes Tuesday in the long-expected re-election of President Bashar Assad to a third term in office despite widespread international criticism of a poll held in a divided, violence-ridden country.
Security was tightened ahead of the voting, which will be held only in regime-held areas amid a lack of transparency, as opposition supporters were divided over whether rebels should target polling stations on election day.
The government said over 15 million people would be eligible to vote at around 10,000 polling stations in areas where regime forces hold sway, and condemned “rumors” it said were designed to disrupt the poll.
The Interior Ministry urged people to turn out in force to select the candidate of their choice in a climate of “total freedom and democracy.” It vowed that voters would be able to move around freely and also pledged to punish those responsible for spreading rumors of road closures, or measures taken by the government to pressure voters.
The ministry denied reports that it would mark the personal identification papers of people who voted in a bid to force people to turn out for a poll that has been derided by Western capitals as a “farce.”
Assad is facing two little-known challengers, MP Maher Hajjar and Hassan Nouri, a former minister. The two gave several interviews and turned up at election events during the race, but Assad has not made any public appearances in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Wael Halqi urged Syrians to cast their ballots for a president “who would lead the next stage, achieve security and stability in the country, and bolster unity and national principle for the Syrian people and step up the achievement of national reconciliation.”
He said the election was a “historic day” for Syria and that a large turnout would “prove to the entire world that the Syrian people have decided and are determined to make the electoral process a success.” Ahmad Jarba, the leader of the opposition National Coalition, described the vote as “theater written with the blood of Syrians.” He urged his countrymen to stay home, alleging that Assad was planning to bomb and shell voting centers in order to blame the opposition.
In the divided city of Aleppo, where violence by regime forces and rebel groups has raged in the run-up to the poll, 11 civilian opposition groups urged rebels to avoid targeting polling stations and instead focus on attacking “the enemy on the front lines and in large military centers.”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said 59 people have been killed in rebel strikes on government-held neighborhoods since Saturday.
Airstrikes and barrel bombs dropped by helicopter struck a number of rebel-held areas Monday, killing at least 22 people and wounding scores more.
Also, a bomb-laden truck exploded and killed 10 people in Haraki, an Alawite village in the central province of Homs.
Mortar bomb attacks targeted several government-controlled areas of Damascus, but no deaths were reported, while fierce fighting raged in several outskirts of the capital.
The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria. Polling stations are scheduled to open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close 12 hours later. The ministry said voting could be extended for five hours if there was a big turnout.
Syria’s two main internal opposition groups describe the election as “illegitimate,” and are boycotting.
In predominantly Kurdish areas in the northeast, polling stations will be open, although Kurdish parties have said they will boycott. The only major city where there will be no vote is Raqqa, which is controlled by the Al-Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
The Observatory said ISIS prevented residents of Raqqa from leaving the city beginning Monday morning out the fear that they might attempt to travel to polling stations outside the province and vote in the election.
Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million refugees across the region either abstained or were excluded by voting laws.
Inside Syria, attitudes toward the polls appeared to be a mix of apathy and anger. Haya, a 23-year-old civil engineering student from Homs, said she was under no illusion the vote would be fair, but said she still would vote for Assad.
“If he stays in power, we have hope of getting our lives back, the peace and the stability,” she said, speaking on condition she only give her first name because of security reasons.