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VICE News

Syrians Vote in Presidential Election, But the Winner Is Inevitable

President Assad will win heavily in today's election. He's re-asserting himself over Syria, but it's also surprising he remains in power.

by VICE News
Jun 3 2014, 6:45pm

Photo via AP/Dusan Vranic

Syrians are going to the polls today in an election that has been widely derided as a sham and will almost certainly result in another seven-year term for current president Bashar al-Assad.

His only opponents are obscure politicians who praise his policies and the voting framework is designed to guarantee his victory.

While this all seems very much like a continuation of the status quo, today's election is not without meaning for Syria as a whole and it will have ramifications for the country's future. The fact that Assad has even managed to stay in power this long is in itself surprising.

Syria's sham election: A tale of two cities. Read more here.

His ouster seemed inevitable during the beginnings of the Syrian uprising, when the Arab Spring toppled despots across the Middle East. In 2012, when high-level government meetings were bombed and rebel forces were making huge territorial gains across the country, it seemed unlikely that Assad would be in office for even a few more months, let alone be re-elected for another seven years.

With Assad expected to win Syria's presidential election by a landslide today, residents of Kafr Zita filmed a satirical take. Citizens are told to vote for candidate number seven and given a ballot where the number is pre-written, as well as surgical masks in case of a chlorine attack "so they can still vote before they head to a safe place." The voter who doesn't vote for number seven is quickly taken away. Video via General Authority of the Syrian Revolution - Hama.

Now, his forces are now making gains across the country and recently retook what was left of the devastated city of Homs, once known as the "capital of the revolution."

'Nothing has changed because he's there and will still be there for another seven years.'

So the vote could be Assad's way of giving the West a big middle finger. Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow with the Royal Institute for International Affairs' Middle East and North Africa program, told VICE News: "Assad is basically rubbing it in to the international community saying 'I've won and there's nothing you can do about it.' Other than that nothing has changed because he's there and will still be there for another seven years."

Assad has also portrayed himself as defending Syria against foreign political powers. One video uploaded by his campaign showed the country as the object of a game of cards.

Video via YouTube/sawaalassad.

This will, in fact, be Syria's first presidential election in modern history. Previously, presidential terms were called through a referendum with only one option: Assad. His father Hafez, from whom he inherited power in 2000, ruled under the same framework.

That does not mean that the electoral process will be democratic. Authorities announced the polls in April, and said that anyone who was Syrian, had lived in the country continuously for a decade, and was backed by at least 35 members of parliament could run.

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Handily for Assad, these conditions neatly ruled out any opposition figures and any chance of dissent. While 24 candidates applied to take part in the vote, in the end only three — including Assad — were approved by the constitutional court.

Video posted to social media sites by Assad's campaign showed the candidate and his wife Asma casting their votes today.

Syrian president and electoral candidate Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma cast their ballot in Damascus today. Video via Facebook/SawaAlassad.

The other two candidates, former Chamber of Industry head Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri, 54, and 43-year-old ex-Communist Party MP Maher Abdul Hafez Hajjar are political nobodies. Both have praised Assad on public TV, only quibbling about minor policy issues.

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.

Watch our Syria: The Long War dispatch here.

Expats have already voted at embassies around the world. In Lebanon, crowds of refugees trying to cast their ballots at the Syrian embassy in Beirut were so keen to get to the polling station that they tried to storm the building and were beaten back with batons and sticks by Lebanese troops. Voting also took place in Jordan, China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Poland, Spain and other countries.

Assad does enjoy genuine support among some segments of the Syrian population, particularly those who benefit from his power, as well as Christians, Alawites, and other religious minorities who are concerned about the rise of Islamic militants among the armed opposition groups attempting to overthrow him.

Syrians in government-controlled areas of the country voted in the controversial presidential election today. This footage captures Damascus residents at polling stations. Video via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

He also has some foreign backers, notably Russia and Iran, who will likely both endorse Assad's victory and continue with the political and military support they have provided to Damascus. Both countries have maintained since the start of the Syrian uprising that Assad is the legitimate president of the country and portrayed any opposition to his rule as being the result of Western plots and foreign terrorists.

"They have stuck to the same narrative and consistently pursued it for the last three years," Shehadi said. "Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments and media have consistently held that line over the last three years and worked on the ground to reinforce it."

Shehadi added that both Iran and Russia will likely see an Assad election victory, no matter how phony, as a vindication of their backing. Tehran in particular, he continued, is likely to try and take the opportunity to extend its influence in the region.

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The election will be condemned by many others many in the international community, however. 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, has already described the entire process as a "parody of democracy." The Arab League and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have also criticized proceedings.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck