Syria’s presidential election campaign, launched at the weekend, has transformed the streets of Damascus into a glorification of incumbent Bashar al-Assad, who is expected to easily win the June 3 vote.
On the streets, parks and buildings of the city, barely a wall can be seen without a picture of the president, who is running for a third seven-year term as his troops battle rebels trying to oust him.
For the first time, Assad faces an election rather than a referendum for the post, but with the two other candidates virtually unknown, the competition appears more like a one-horse race.
In the Syrian capital, residents profess ignorance when asked about his rivals, Maher al-Hajjar and Hassan al-Nuri.
“Nuri, who’s this one?” asked a student near the University of Damascus in the city’s Baramkeh neighbourhood, pointing at a small sign on which the businessman calls for a “free economy”.
In a country where the cult of personality surrounding Bashar and his father and predecessor Hafez has been built up for nearly 50 years, Syrians are used to towering posters of the Assads.
Their portraits have long appeared on billboards, in shop windows and stuck to electricity poles. Busts of the father and son even watch over the entrances to public parks.
And although the election will be the country’s first multi-candidate presidential vote in 50 years, and a term seen on many of the posters is “mubayaa” — a word meaning to chose a leader by pledging allegiance.
Syria’s opposition and western countries have lambasted the election as a “farce”.
But the government sees the vote, coupled with recent successes on the battlefield, as an opportunity to portray itself as the “victor” in the country’s devastating three-year war.
Alongside the slogan “Assad’s Syria,” other posters in the city announce that the president is “the only choice” for the ballot, which will only take place in areas controlled by government troops.
The president appears in some of the posters smiling, and in others he wears a pair of sunglasses as he throws a salute.
“Our Bashar, we do not accept any other president than you,” some of the posters read. Others proclaim simply: “We love you”.
One sign near Damascus’s opera house announces that Assad has become not only “the choice of journalists and intellectuals,” but also for “investors and entrepreneurs”.
“Syria will remain the den of lions,” another poster adds, in a play on the name Assad, which means lion in Arabic.
“Yes to the one who preserved Syria’s pride,” is emblazoned on banners that hang across busy roads.
– ‘We want him to stay’ –
Interviewed in public, few Syrians express plans to vote for anyone but Assad.
“For us, it’s not even an election, it’s a referendum, we want him to stay,” said Maher, in his clothing shop in the Salhiyeh commercial district.
Mayada, a 55-year-old housewife out in the Baramkeh neighbourhood, is equally adamant.
“Those outside must understand that… we don’t want anyone but him,” she told AFP.
“It’s those abroad who are the cause of our problems.”
Assad is campaigning under the slogan “Together,” and has launched an online presence, with a Facebook page that had over 109,000 likes by Monday morning, and a Twitter account with 1,200 followers.
In Damascus’s Mazzeh district, supporters have hung a banner declaring the campaign unnecessary.
“The decision (to stand) is not yours, the people have chosen you,” it informs Assad, alongside the signatures of residents.
The two other candidates are almost invisible by comparison, maintaining a low profile, giving no new conferences and remaining unreachable by journalists.
Their slogans, ranging from “Syria… for Palestine” or “for social equality,” seem out of touch with the reality of the country after more than three years of devastating war.
– A ‘masquerade’ –
Despite the atmosphere, some Syrians in the capital openly dismiss the election.
“This doesn’t concern us,” one jaded watch-seller at a market said.
Two young women, dressed elegantly, pause for a moment when asked about the upcoming vote, before bursting into laughter.
“It’s a masquerade, intimidation,” one said, laughing.
“He charges ahead and doesn’t look at anyone but himself, without seeing what’s happening in his country,” the other one said, referring to Assad.
Elsewhere, the tone is one of simple resignation, after a conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people and wrought massive destruction throughout the country.
Near the Barada river, Salma is carrying her young daughter.
“People are tired, we want peace,” she said.