Confident and casual, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voted Tuesday along with his British-born wife, Asma, for his own re-election, displaying an image that contrasts sharply with the war he is waging.
Portrayed as a criminal by the opposition, Assad is keen to show himself as a man of the people. And he posed for a selfie along with a group of youths at the polling station where he voted.
The photograph then made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook.
State television broadcast footage showing the presidential couple smiling as they arrive at a polling station in Maliki, a residential neighbourhood in downtown Damascus.
As they walk in, they are greeted and embrace supporters before going into a voting booth. They emerge and are met by applause as they drop their ballots into the box and dip their finger in election ink.
Assad is wearing a dark blue suit, his blonde wife a business-like black skirt, white jacket and black stiletto shoes.
Tuesday’s was one of the couple’s rare public appearances since the outbreak of an Arab Spring-inspired revolt in March 2011.
The brutal crackdown on all dissent that ensued heavily tarnished the young, modern couple’s image.
Near polling stations in Damascus, AFP journalists saw people with their faces painted in the colours of the official Syrian flag, driving through town, honking as they held up pictures of Assad.
Other drivers blasted songs glorifying Assad. “We are your men, O Bashar!” said one.
At the entrance to other polling stations, regime supporters danced and sang.
But the couple’s glamorous image and the festive atmosphere on the streets contrasted dramatically with that of a country bled dry by three years of war.
Even on election day, fighting and bombardment raged in flashpoints across Syria, as the air force struck opposition areas and rebels rained mortar fire on the capital.
The image the couple tried to give also contrasted with the outcry in rebel areas, where opposition activists have branded the vote a “blood election” that they believe will only usher in more war.
A cult of personality has pervaded Syrian politics ever since Assad’s father Hafez came to power more than 40 years ago.
– Free Assad ringtones –
On the streets, even though Tuesday’s was staged as a multi-candidate election, posters and billboards appeared to glorify Assad alone, while some were imprinted with slogans swearing loyalty to the “eternal leader.”
Syrian mobile phone company MTN sent out messages to subscribers offering free ringtones. One was a song dedicated to Assad titled “We don’t want anyone but you”, the other was an ode to “Our leader.”
Making the atmosphere even more surreal, several neighbourhoods of the capital were hit by mortar rounds while people voted, while the thunder of artillery could be heard and warplanes flew above the city.
The election was only held in regime-controlled territory, and the opposition called for a boycott. Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche says the army controls 40 percent of the country’s territory, where 60 percent of people live.
For three years, with the unwavering support of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, Assad has resisted calls for him to step down. Instead, he says his regime is fighting a foreign-backed “terrorist plot.”