Syrians voted Sunday for a new parliament as the Damascus government grapples with international sanctions and a crumbling economy after retaking large parts of the war-torn country.
More than 7,000 polling stations opened across government-held parts of Syria, including for the first time in former opposition strongholds, in the third such polls since the war started nine years ago.
Several lists were allowed to run across the country but, without any real opposition, President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party and its allies were expected to take most of parliament’s 250 seats.
Assad and his wife Asma cast their votes in the capital, the presidency said, posting photos of the couple wearing white face masks as part of measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Volunteers stood outside polling stations holding flyers promoting their favourite candidates, and tried to woo passersby to come in and vote.
Among the first to cast his ballot in Damascus was 50-year-old government employee Khaled al-Shaleh.
“I voted today for a candidate I trust is able to relay my demands,” he said. “Our demands before, during and after the war have always been to do with the economy.”
The elections were twice postponed from April due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has officially infected 496 people and killed 25 in government-held areas.
Polling station staff wearing masks took the temperature of people coming though the door and checked that voters waiting in line were observing social distancing.
Portraits of the contenders have been displayed across the capital for weeks, with the 1,658 candidates including several prominent businessmen. Many candidates are running on programmes pledging to tackle sharp inflation and improve infrastructure ravaged by the conflict.
“Lawmakers are going to have to make exceptional efforts to improve services,” said Umaya, a 31-year-old woman who works in a dentist’s practice.
Polls were due to close at 1600 GMT but voting could be extended by an extra five hours. In the last polls in 2016, turnout reached 57 percent.
Millions of Syrians living abroad, after fleeing a war that has killed more than 380,000 people, are not eligible to vote.
For the first time, voting was to take place in territory retaken by the government, including in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus and in the south of Idlib province in the country’s northwest.
After a string of military victories backed by key ally Russia, the government is back in control of around 70 percent of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor says.
The capital has largely been secure in recent years, but on the eve of the vote one person was killed and another wounded in a blast in Damascus, state news agency SANA said.
This year’s vote comes as Damascus struggles to redress an economy battered by war, Western sanctions and the fallout of a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.
Food prices in Syria have shot up by more than 200 percent in the past year and now stand at 20 times their pre-war levels, the World Food Programme says.
In a country where more than 80 percent of people already live in poverty, the UN food agency has warned Syrians are now facing an “unprecedented hunger crisis”.
Senior opposition figure in exile Nasr al-Hariri slammed Sunday’s vote as the latest such “farce… to form a sham parliament for the regime to use to pass legislation to serve the gang in power”.
Assad marked 20 years as president this month, weeks after the United States imposed new economic sanctions including on his wife.
The next presidential polls are expected in 2021, and candidates will need the written approval of at least 35 members of parliament.
Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem last month said Assad would remain in power “as long as the Syrians want him to stay”.—AFP