Campaigning began Sunday for Syria’s June 3 presidential election expected to return Bashar al-Assad to power, as the regime marked a symbolic victory with the exit of rebels from Homs.
In Damascus, campaign posters lauding Assad hung on shopping streets and in public gardens, in the run-up to the country’s first multi-candidate presidential vote.
The election is being staged despite a raging civil war, with dozens of people killed every day nationwide.
Polling will be held only in government-controlled territory, excluding large areas held by rebels, and refugees who fled through unofficial crossings are barred from voting.
Nevertheless, the president’s office in a statement “called on all Syrians to express their opinion on any candidate in full freedom and transparency through the ballot box on election day”.
It urged Syrians to respect the campaign period and praised the “civilised” and “pluralistic” election process.
Assad, standing for his third seven-year term, came to office in 2000 after the death of his father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, who had been in power since 1970.
He faces two opponents, both largely unknown, who qualified from a pool of 23 who sought to stand against him.
Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar is an independent MP and former communist party member from Syria’s second city Aleppo, and Hassan Abdullah al-Nuri is a Damascus businessman who was a member of the tolerated internal opposition.
In the capital, a few posters for Nuri’s campaign could be seen, calling for a “battle against corruption,” a “free economy” and the “return of the middle class”.
His campaign broadcasts have also aired on state television.
In the Baramkeh neighbourhood, a Hajjar campaign billboard bore his photo and the slogan “Sovereignty belongs to the people, they have the final word, Syria belongs to those who build it.”
– Assad posters dominate –
But the Assad campaign dominated the landscape, with dozens of posters showing the Syrian flag overlaid with the word “together” and his signature.
Several residents professed ignorance when asked about those standing against him, including 55-year-old housewife Mayada, who said she was backing Assad.
“We hope that people outside Syria understand that this is our country, this is our president and we don’t want anyone else,” she told AFP.
In a public garden near the commercial centre of Salhieh, pictures of the president hung alongside images of his father and Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief and Assad ally Hassan Nasrallah.
In the Sabaa Bahrat neighbourhood, one billboard posted “by citizens of Syria” proclaimed: “We won’t close our eyes until we have said yes to the ophthalmologist” — Assad is an eye specialist by training.
Elsewhere, posters read: “Our Bashar, we will not accept a president other than you. We have chosen you, you have our loyalty.”
Outside the capital, posters declaring “with our blood, we elect Bashar al-Assad” were displayed at the country’s border with Lebanon, and his campaign billboards lined the highway leading to Damascus.
– Campaign starts online –
Assad’s campaign has also begun online with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram accounts all set up to promote his candidacy.
The campaigning begins just days after Assad’s government claimed a symbolic victory in the central city of Homs, where it retook the Old City after a deal granting rebels there safe passage out.
The government lay siege to the Old City and surrounding rebel neighbourhoods for nearly two years, and near daily shelling reduced much of the area to rubble.
Under the deal, the last of around 2,000 fighters and civilians left the Old City on Friday, and government forces moved back in.
Just one neighbourhood of the central Syrian city still remains under opposition control.
Over the weekend, the army swept the evacuated area for explosives and began clearing rubble-strewn streets as residents returned to check on homes they had not seen for nearly two years.
At the Church of the Belt of the Virgin, in the Old City of Homs, the faithful gathered for a mass and prayers of thanks for “the return of security in Homs”, state television said.
Homs saw some of the worst fighting so far in the country’s conflict, which began after a regime crackdown on anti-government protests in March 2011.