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Syrian President Easily Wins Referendum

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By ALBERT AJI
The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 29, 2007; 7:46 PM

DAMASCUS, Syria -- President Bashar Assad won another seven years in office, getting 97 percent of the vote in a referendum on his leadership in which he was the only candidate, according to results announced Tuesday.

The United States sarcastically noted Assad's "ability to have defeated exactly zero other candidates."

Assad's regime is under intense international scrutiny, accused of meddling in Iraq, supporting Palestinian militant groups, and involvement in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Under his rule, Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon following an outcry over Hariri's killing.

Still hundreds of thousands of Syrians in white caps and T-shirts bearing Assad's picture beat drums and danced in the streets of Damascus to celebrate the result. They also swarmed outside the presidential palace to congratulate the president.

Victory celebrations in Syria have been going on ever since parliament, which is dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated the 42-year-old leader on May 10 for another term.

Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid said 95 percent of the country's almost 12 million voters turned out at the polls in Sunday's presidential vote. Only 19,635 voters said "no" to Assad's re-election, while 253,000 ballots were considered invalid.

Abdul-Majid told reporters that Assad's re-election was "proof of our people's political maturity and an expression of their willingness to go on with the process of construction and modernization, as well as a confirmation of the principal values Syria has adopted under (the president's) wise leadership."

Sunday's vote was boycotted by the country's tiny opposition, which said Syrians should have a choice in who governs them. Critics of the regime accuse Assad of suppressing pro-democracy activists, rampant corruption and mass arrests, although many fear openly expressing dissent.

Maamoun Homsi, a Syrian dissident living in Lebanon, dismissed the election results as a "forgery," saying in a statement in Beirut that the vote was a "blatant aggression on the minds, dignity and reputation of the Syrian people."

Homsi, a former legislator, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and imprisoned in Damascus for five years for dissent. He fled Syria after being released from prison last year.

Opposition groups also criticized the referendum.

Members of the Damascus Declaration _ a grouping of 500 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals who in 2005 formed a broad coalition of Syrian pro-democracy groups _ issued a statement saying calls were ignored to amend the constitution to allow for freer elections.

In Washington, the State Department denounced the vote in unusually blunt and sarcastic terms.

"I'm sure President Assad is basking in the glow of his ability to have defeated exactly zero other candidates and continue his misrule of Syria," spokesman Tom Casey said.

"Clearly there was no real choice here for the Syrian people," he said. "You know, your choice is between vanilla, vanilla and vanilla and I don't think that's one that offers a variety of flavors and identities for the Syrian people to choose from."

Assad, a British-educated ophthalmologist, became president after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000. In his first referendum, he also received 97 percent approval. Since coming to power, Assad has led a campaign to modernize Syria, introducing new economic measures and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.

The Syrian Parliament, at a special session, officially endorsed Assad's re-election. Speaker Mahmoud Abrash declared Assad the president for another term of seven years, triggering huge applause from parliament members.

Abdul-Majid said Assad would be sworn in before the July 17 end of his current term. He said the current Cabinet would stay on.


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© 2007 The Associated Press

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