Syria’s controversial election extends Assad’s grip on power

The speaker of parliament Hammouda Sabbagh announced Thursday that Assad had garnered 95.1 percent of the votes cast, trouncing two virtually unknown challengers.
Friday 28/05/2021
Supporters of of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad celebrate after the results of the presidential election announced that he won a fourth term in office, in Damascus, Syria, May 27, 2021. REUTERS
Supporters of of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad celebrate after the results of the presidential election announced that he won a fourth term in office, in Damascus, Syria, May 27, 2021. (REUTERS)

DAMASCUS--Bashar al-Assad has been re-elected for a fourth term as president of war-ravaged Syria, official results showed on Thursday, despite Western accusations the polls were “neither free nor fair.”

The controversial vote extending Assad’s stranglehold on power was the second since the start of a decade-long civil conflict that has killed more than 388,000 people, displaced millions and battered the country’s infrastructure.

The speaker of parliament Hammouda Sabbagh announced Thursday that Assad had garnered 95.1 percent of the votes cast, trouncing two virtually unknown challengers.

Standing against him were former state minister Abdallah Salloum Abdallah and Mahmud Merhi, a member of the so-called “tolerated opposition”, long dismissed by exiled opposition leaders as an extension of the regime.

Sabbagh also said voter turnout was around 78%, with more than 14 million Syrians taking part.

On the eve of the election, the US, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said the poll was “neither free nor fair” and Syria’s fragmented opposition has called it a “farce.”

But few doubted that Assad, a 55-year-old ophthalmologist by training, would be re-elected.

In the last multi-candidate poll in 2014, Assad won 88 percent of the vote.

 Expected win 

Huge election posters glorifying Assad had mushroomed across the two-thirds of the country under his control in the lead-up to Wednesday’s poll.

Before the election results were even  announced, tens of thousands of Syrians gathered Thursday in various cities to celebrate, waving Syrian flags and carrying pictures of Assad, state media reported.

The festivities broke out after the election committee, quoted by local TV, said that “the ballot counting process has been completed in the majority of Syrian provinces”.

“Tens of thousands of people in Tartus province gathered at the city’s seafront to celebrate” Assad’s expected win, according to state news agency SANA.

Some danced and beat drums, footage broadcast by Syrian television showed.

Thousands of other Syrians rallied in the coastal city of Latakia and in Umayyad Square in the capital Damascus, which along with Tartus and Latakia are bastions of the regime.

Celebrations were also under way in Aleppo and in Sweida, in Syria’s south, where a crowd gathered in front of city hall, state media said.

The election was held Wednesday in government-held areas and state media showed long queues forming outside polling stations, which remained open five hours past the planned closing time.

The vote took place amid the lowest levels of violence since the war erupted in 2011, but with the economy in free fall.

More than 80 percent of the population live in poverty and the Syrian pound has plunged in value against the dollar, causing skyrocketing inflation.

Tightening US sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon’s financial collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting remittances from Syrians abroad and the inability of allies Russia and Iran to provide enough relief, mean prospects for recovery look poor.

Assad’s campaign slogan, “Hope through work”, evoked the colossal reconstruction needed to rebuild the country, requiring billions of dollars in funding.

Seven more years 

The election went ahead despite a UN-led peace process that had called for voting under international supervision that would help pave the way for a new constitution and a political settlement.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States put out a statement criticising Assad ahead of the election, saying that the vote would not be free or fair. Turkey, an Assad adversary, has also said the election was illegitimate.

The win delivers Assad, 55, seven more years in power and lengthens his family’s rule to nearly six decades. His father, Hafez al-Assad, led Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.

Assad’s years as president have been defined by the conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before spiralling into a multi-sided conflict that has fractured the Middle Eastern country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies.

“Thank you to all Syrians for their high sense of nationalism and their notable participation … For the future of Syria’s children and its youth, let’s start from tomorrow our campaign of work to build hope and build Syria,” Assad wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page.

The UN’s Syria envoy, Geir Pedersen, said the polls were held under the auspices of the current constitution and “not part of the political (transition) process called for in Security Council Resolution 2254” of December 2015.

“What is required is a Syrian-led and -owned political solution, facilitated by the United Nations and backed by constructive international diplomacy,” he said.

In rebel-held north-western Syria, home to three million people, hundreds took to the streets to protest on Wednesday, a correspondent said.

They carried posters saying: “No legitimacy for Assad and his elections.”