Syrians Vote For Assad in Uncontested Referendum

Associated Press
Monday, May 28, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria, May 27 -- Posters plastered on walls of the capital and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers proclaimed "We love you" as Syrians voted Sunday in a referendum to endorse President Bashar al-Assad -- the only candidate -- for a second term.

But the country's tiny opposition boycotted the voting, saying Syrians should have a choice in who governs them. Critics of Assad's government accuse him of rampant corruption, mass arrests and clamping down on pro-democracy activists, though many are fearful of openly expressing dissent.

The government is also under intense international scrutiny, accused of meddling in Iraq, supporting Palestinian militant groups and being involved in the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005. Under Assad's rule, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon after an outcry over Hariri's killing.

Still, the president is assured of another seven-year term in a referendum that gave voters just one choice: a green circle to approve Assad or a gray one to oppose his second term. In his first referendum, he received 97.29 percent approval.

Assad, 42, a British-educated ophthalmologist, became president shortly after the death of his father, President Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. This month, parliament, dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated Assad for another term.

Hopes were high among Syrians when the younger Assad first came to power, leading a campaign to modernize the country with economic reforms and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.

But he has since cracked down on pro-democracy activists, drawing criticism from human rights groups. In the last two months, six government critics and human rights campaigners have been convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

At a congress of Assad's Baath Party in 2005, delegates endorsed the idea of independent political parties and relaxing emergency laws in place since 1963. But those promises have yet to be realized.

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