BEIRUT — Syrians voted Monday in parliamentary elections touted by the government as evidence that it is embarking on political reform. The opposition, however, called on citizens to skip the vote, saying it was a sham exercise by President Bashar al-Assad to secure his hold on power.
For the first time in decades, multiple political parties were ostensibly allowed to challenge the dominance of the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria unchecked since 1963. But with the government imposing strict restrictions on who could compete and security forces targeting Assad opponents with violence in many parts of the country despite a cease-fire agreement, the regime’s opponents said the vote demonstrated that Assad has no intention of carrying out meaningful reforms.
“Of course they are not serious,” said Mousab al-Hamadee, an activist in Hama. “They are just trying to lift international pressure and show the world that they are making reforms, while we are being shelled and killed. It’s like a dance on the corpses of dead people.”
The opposition declared a boycott of the vote and urged citizens to observe a strike in protest. Activists posted video on YouTube showing shuttered stores in several parts of the country, including in Hama, Deir al-Zour and the restive Midan neighborhood of Damascus.
Throughout the day, state television broadcast footage of Syrians across the country swarming to vote, and official media reported high turnout. But the reports are difficult to verify because few Western journalists are allowed access into Syria, and those granted visas operate under tight restrictions.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted a number of politicians as saying that the elections were a milestone in the reform process initiated last year by Assad, who has ruled Syria since 2000.
“The legislative elections mark an important and historic stage in Syria, which is moving forward with the announced comprehensive reform program despite all conspiracies,” said Prime Minister Adel Safar, according to SANA.
The elections were held under the terms of a new constitution, which went into effect in February. It gives few powers to the legislature, with Assad retaining the authority to appoint and fire the government. Hence, the parliamentary elections are unlikely to have any effect on the overall direction of the government or on the crisis that has consumed this Middle Eastern nation since the uprising against Assad’s rule began about 14 months ago.
The vote came as the United Nations is gradually shoring up a monitoring mission aimed at stopping the violence and paving the way for negotiations between Assad and his opponents. But with just about 40 of the 300 monitors in place, the mission has had only a modest impact on the level of unrest.