DAMASCUS: Waving photos of President Bashar Assad and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday in a presidential election that excluded a vast swath of the prewar population and was decried by the opposition as a charade.
Some stamped their ballots with blood after pricking their fingers with pins supplied by the government in a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism. Others chose to vote in full sight of other voters and television cameras, rather than go behind a partition for privacy.
Men and women wore lapel pins with Assad’s picture and said re-electing him would give the Syrian leader more legitimacy to find a solution to the devastating three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.
Security was tight, with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the capital and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
In the early evening, the electoral committee extended voting by five hours to midnight because of “high turnout at the ballot box.”
Even as crowds of Assad supporters flocked to the polls in Damascus, the sounds of war were inescapable. At least three fighter jets roared low over Damascus during the voting, which residents said was unusual.
The sounds of explosions also reverberated in the distance as pro-regime forces and rebels battled in nearby rural towns and ashy plumes of gray smoke marked the skyline.
While the voting was largely peaceful, at least five people were killed by mortar bomb strikes in various neighborhoods of the capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in Britain.
The balloting is only taking place in government-controlled areas, excluding much of northern and eastern Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees across the region either abstained or were excluded by voting laws.
Assad’s expected victory will give him a third seven-year term in office, tighten his hold on power and likely further strengthen his determination to crush the insurgency.
The so-called internal opposition groups are also boycotting the vote, while many anti-regime activists around the country are referring to it as a “blood election” for the horrific toll the country has suffered.
Washington slammed Assad’s attempt to shore up his authority by staging an election in the middle of a war. “Today’s presidential election in Syria is a disgrace,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “Assad has no more credibility today than he did yesterday.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called the election “fake” and said it would not help resolve the conflict.
“In this election the choice was between Bashar [Assad] and Bashar [Assad],” Fabius said. “This fake election will serve to justify Bashar Assad’s ability to continue the type of policies we all recognize, which are a merciless fight [against the opposition] and keeping himself in power.”
NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen dismissed the poll as a “farce” and said it did not meet international standards.
The vote “does not fulfill international standards for free, fair and transparent elections and I am sure no [NATO] ally will recognize the outcome of these so-called elections,” he said, as he went into a NATO defense ministers meeting.
Assad faced two government-approved and little-known challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan Nouri.
In government strongholds of Damascus and Latakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing while declaring undying loyalty to Assad.
In Homs, the atmosphere was more restrained, with people standing in long lines to vote. Even the destroyed Old City, recently evacuated by hundreds of rebel fighters after a cease-fire agreement with government forces, had a few polling stations, including one placed in the courtyard of the heavily damaged St. Mary’s Church of the Holy Belt.
Assad cast his ballot in the morning at a school in his posh Damascus neighborhood of Malki. The TV showed him in a dark blue suit and tie, flanked by his wife, Asma, both smiling as they inserted their ballots in a transparent box.
In his first public appearance since undergoing heart surgery in March, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem voted with a Syrian flag wrapped like a shawl around his neck.At the upscale Dama Rose hotel in central Damascus, a cup filled with pins was on offer for those who chose to vote in blood. Some pricked their fingers repeatedly to ensure they drew enough blood to mark the circle under Assad’s name on the ballot. Most, though, voted in ink.
In one Damascus polling station, government official Bassam Ramadani stood with a small pile of syringes instead of pins for those wishing to vote in blood.
After using one of the syringes, voter Firyal Sheikh al-Zour, 50, proudly displayed her bloodied finger to the media. Another voter suspiciously glanced at the syringes, then muttered: “Give me a clean needle.”