Syria on Sunday wrapped up campaigning for the June 3 presidential election expected to return Bashar al-Assad to power, a vote the opposition brands a “parody of democracy”.
With swathes of Syria out of government control, Tuesday’s vote will only take place in regime-held territory, far from where Assad’s forces are battling the rebels who seek to topple him.
The fragmented opposition, and their Western and Arab allies, will be left to watch powerlessly as the ballot returns Assad to power for a third seven-year term while the army makes advances on the battlefield.
Assad’s opponents have dubbed the vote a “parody of democracy” and urged Syrians to boycott the vote in which Assad’s sole competitors — MP Maher al-Hajjar and businessman Hassan al-Nouri — are little know and seen as token rivals.
On Sunday, the ruling Baath Party, which has dominated Syria for more than half a century, called for people to re-elect Assad.
The president was chosen by referendum in 2000 following the death of his father and veteran strongman, president Hafez al-Assad.
By choosing Assad, Syrians would be voting “for a leader… who faces the war… for the iconic leader Bashar al-Assad who has stayed at the side of his people in all corners of the homeland,” the ruling party said in a statement.
In an apparent bid to shore up the support of Sunni Muslims, state television gave a live broadcast of a meeting of Sunni clerics who also urged voters to cast their ballots for Assad.
The president is from the minority Alawite community, while most of the rebels fighting to topple him come from Syria’s majority Sunni community.
In Lebanon, hundreds of Syrian refugees held a protest denouncing the polls as a “blood election”, as the death toll from the three-year war has topped an estimated 160,000.
“Our revolution came to topple the sectarian, aggressive regime. How can we be expected to vote it back in?” read a poster carried by a demonstrator.
The protest came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more violence Sunday, including barrel bombs attacks on the northern city of Aleppo and rival jihadist infighting.
The Britain-based group said jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) killed a 102-year-old man and four other members of his Alawite community in Hama province, burning some of them alive.
And 18 foreign fighters with ISIL were killed in latest clashes with Al-Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front in Deir Ezzor, northwest Syria, according to the Observatory.
– Early show of force –
With campaigning drawing to a close, the streets of Damascus were plastered with posters glorifying Assad, with little space left for pictures of his rivals.
The poll is aimed at bolstering Assad’s position as he seeks to win at all costs the war he is fighting against the exiled opposition and fragmented rebels weakened by infighting.
Peaceful protests calling for political change that started in March 2011 have been transformed into a full-blown civil war after a brutal regime crackdown on demonstrators.
Damascus says the protesters are “armed terrorists” who serve a “foreign plot”.
Al-Baath newspaper, mouthpiece of the ruling party, insisted on Sunday that Syrians will vote “to show that the will of the people is stronger than all the dreams and desires of the plotters”.
The regime pulled off a coup on Wednesday when thousands of expatriates and refugees living abroad turned out for an early vote in 43 embassies in their host countries.
More than 95 percent of those registered to vote cast their ballots, SANA state news agency said.
However, Syrians who entered countries illegally were not allowed to take part and only 200,000 of some three million refugees were on electoral lists abroad.
France, Germany and Belgium barred the election from taking place on their territory, as did the United Arab Emirates, Damascus said.
A senior Iranian MP, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, meanwhile, told ISNA news agency in Tehran that delegations from nine countries will monitor the election, including from regime allies Russia and Iran.
Boroujerdi said he will travel Monday to Damascus along with MPs from Uganda, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Venezuela, Tajikistan and the Philippines to link up with a Russian and Lebanese teams.