Lina Sinjab in Damascus, Ian Black and agencies
The Guardian, Tuesday 3 June 2014
Syrians began voting on Tuesday in the shadow of a bloody war, but no surprises are expected in an election in which Bashar al-Assad is running for the presidency on his ability to restore security and stability.
Assad is facing two other candidates for the first time, but although officially 15 million people are eligible to vote this can only happen in areas under government control.
“Military and security forces are on maximum alert to ensure the security of Syrians who wish to vote,” the pro-government newspaper al-Watan reported on Monday . Rebels are boycotting what they call a “blood election”, and the 9,000 polling stations will be closely guarded.
Securing a third presidential term is Assad’s answer to the uprising, which started in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrators calling for reforms but has since morphed into a fully fledged war that has shaken the Middle East and the world. And now, with an estimated 160,000 dead, millions displaced at home and abroad, outside powers backing both sides, and al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups gaining more control in the north and east, many Syrians believe that Assad alone is capable of ending the conflict.
In the capital, Damascus, security was tight with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the city and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
At a polling station in the city’s Dama Rose hotel, many voters refused to go behind the curtain to vote in privacy, instead publicly circling Assad’s name.
At the same station in central Damascus, a box with pins was available for those who wanted to prick their finger and vote in blood a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism. Odai al-Jamounai said he voted with his blood “to express by my love to my country and my leader.”
Assad’s image is on display everywhere in Damascus. “Together” is the key word he chose for the campaign. “We build together,” says one banner, adorned by the ever-smiling president. “Together we provide safety, we fight corruption, we fight terrorism, we bring back stability.”
It is far harder to find photographs promoting Maher Hajjar, a businessman, and Hassan al-Nouri, an MP from Aleppo – the only other challengers in what everyone understands is both a show of democracy and a defiant claim of victory.
The president’s supporters are certainly competing to display their loyalty. “You are our hope,” declares a poster signed by a prominent Damascene businessman. “The world won’t change you, Assad, but you will change the world,” says another. The bigger the poster, the greater the loyalty – and the better the rewards.
Ali, another businessman with close ties to the regime, believes there must be reforms. “Everyone knows Assad will stay in power with or without elections, but it is important that he brings about change,” he said.
He criticised the corrupt behaviour of paramilitary units such as the national defence forces and the newly formed Ba’ath Brigades, whose members stand accused of imposing rules for their own financial gain, or carrying out kidnappings to extort ransom payments.
“It has become impossible to operate in Syria without feeding the hungry mouths of these militias,” he complained. “You need to pay even to breathe. This must stop so we can live and do business.” If no changes take place after the elections, he warned, anger would mount against Assad even among loyalists.
Central Damascus is under firm government control, although shelling can still be heard from time to time as the army presses rebels in the eastern Ghouta area to stop mortar attacks, which it is feared may disrupt the stage-managed election. There have been daily rallies and marches. Access by foreign media remains highly restricted.
Activists reported fighting, shelling and air raids in rebel-held areas of Syria as voting began elswhere. In the rebel-held central town of Rastan, which has been under attack by government forces for more than two years, an activist who goes by the name of Murhaf al-Zoubi said all the local residents “want Assad to go.”
No one in the opposition areas accepts the validity of the poll, and criticism can be heard in the capital too. Off a busy street in the centre of Damascus is the office of the Building the Syrian State movement headed by Louay Hussein – an Alawite who is part of the “approved” opposition.
“I realise that our voices won’t be heard and we won’t make a difference now, but at least we respect those who have been sidelined,” Hussein said. “In future we will have the Syrian ‘race’ and the terrorists ‘race,'” he predicted gloomily. “The Syrians are all the loyalists and the minorities who get government protection and blessing, and the terrorists are the Sunnis. The Sunnis who remain under government control will have to prove every day that they are not terrorists so that they can survive.”
Opposition activists have quietly kept up humanitarian aid and civil society work but now numbers are diminishing and morale is plummeting. “Everyone is leaving,” said Mona. “We have lost hope.”
Mona is trying to obtain a visa to move abroad and bemoans that fact that the cause of the revolution has been hijacked by radical Islamists – and that Assad looks set to stay for another seven years.
“We are entering another phase of the Syrian eternity, the everlasting control of dictatorship. Those who remain will have to bow in order to survive. Those who have managed to escape will find another home, but not in Syria.”
• Lina Sinjab is a BBC correspondent in the Middle East