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Polls Open in Syrian Elections, but Real Choices Are Hard to Find

Syria's first election in half a century is marked by a narrow candidate pool and broad disenfranchisement.

by John Beck
May 28 2014, 4:15pm

Image via AP/Bilal Hussein

Syrian expatriates began voting today in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere, ahead of a June 3 presidential election widely derided by critics as a sham.

Crowds of refugees travelling to cast their ballots at the Syrian embassy in Beirut's southeastern Yarze district blocked streets and caused massive traffic jams. Some were so keen to get to the polling station that they tried to storm the embassy and were beaten back with batons and sticks by Lebanese troops, the Associated Press said.

Video footage shows traffic backed up on Beirut's Damascus Street as hundreds of pedestrians made their way to the embassy, the only polling station in the country.

Video via Instagram/Maggy Anid

Local media reported that voters carried pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad alongside the flag of his Lebanese ally, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, and were accompanied by Syrian anthems blasted from cars.

Assad does enjoy some genuine support among those who benefit from his power, as well as sizable backing from Christians, Alawites, and other religious minorities, who are concerned about the rise of Islamic militants among armed opposition groups. However, one voter told the English-language Lebanese Daily Star newspaper that he only took part out of fear that non-attendance would mean he would be prevented from returning to Syria to visit family.

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Polls opened at embassies around the world, including Jordan, which has the third highest population of Syrian refugees after Lebanon and Turkey. The state-run SANA news agency also reported voting taking place in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Poland, Spain and other countries. It noted that polls would be open for an extra five hours due to high turnout.

This will be Syria's first presidential election in half a century. Previously, presidential terms were called through a referendum with only one option: Assad, and previously, his father Hafez. However, few have much faith that the current process will be a democratic one.

Authorities announced the elections in April, with candidacy open to anyone who was Syrian, had lived in the country continuously for a decade, and was backed by at least 35 members of parliament. These conditions neatly ruled out any opposition figures, and with it, any chance of dissent.

In the end, 24 candidates applied to take part in the run-off. Three were approved by the constitutional court, and Assad was, of course, among them.

The two candidates who will face him are former Chamber of Industry head Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri, 54 and ex-Communist Party MP Maher Abdul Hafez Hajjar. Neither has veered too far from Assad's rhetoric. Haijar, for example, recently denounced the Syrian opposition as being the result of "the US-Zionist project and its pawns in the Arab Gulf who don't want the good of Syrians."

Campaigning is well under way in Syria, where posters of Assad are plastered all over government-held areas of the country and rallies have been held in the capital of Damascus.

However, voting will not be held in opposition-held areas of the country, many of which are under daily bombardment from government forces. Meanwhile, a large majority of the more than 2.8 million or so Syrian refugees that the United Nations says fled abroad will not be able to vote, and neither will many of the 6.5 million displaced internally.

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The international community has condemned the elections. A joint statement by the core 11 countries in the “Friends of the Syrian People” group, including the US, UK, France, Germany, Turkey, and Jordan, said the entire process would be a "parody of democracy."

The Syrian government has dismissed any and all criticisms. The Assistant Regional Secretary of Assad's Baath Party, Hilal al-Hilal, told SANA the presidential elections would "teach the whole world the meaning of steadfastness and democracy."

You can follow John on Twitter @JM_Beck