BEIRUT — Syria set a date Monday for a presidential election widely expected to cement President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly confident position at the helm of the war-torn nation.
The opposition immediately dismissed the announcement of the June 3 vote as a “farce.” It came just hours after two mortar shells exploded outside parliament, killing five people according to state television, and underscored the challenges of holding an election in a country wracked by constant violence.
The civil war will make it impossible for millions to vote, and international backers of Syria’s opposition, including the United States, have written off the election, in which Assad is expected to secure a third seven-year term, as what the Friends of Syria group called a “parody of democracy.”
More than 9 million people have been displaced by the Syrian conflict, which is in its fourth year and is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people.
There is little chance of those in rebel-held areas casting ballots, and the opposition has ridiculed the chances of polls elsewhere being close to free and fair.
“With vast parts of Syria completely destroyed by Assad’s air-force, army and militias over the last three years, and with a third of Syria’s population displaced internally or in refugee camps in the region, there is no electorate in Syria in a condition to exercise its right to vote,” the main Syrian Opposition Coalition said in a statement.
While Assad’s opponents have called for a political transition, the president has repeatedly stressed that the country’s future can be decided only through the ballot box. That means a vote will only further damage chances of any dialogue on Syria’s future, analysts say.
The election also comes against the backdrop of mounting claims about the use of toxic chlorine gas on the battlefield while pro-government forces make gains in central Syria and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
“Absurd announcement from Syria regime that it will hold elections in June,” Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, wrote on his Twitter feed. “No credibility."
Meanwhile, the British Foreign Office said Monday that Assad’s election plans can “only be designed to sustain his dictatorship.”
Unlike in previous elections in Syria, in which voters could only vote yes or no to Assad’s rule, this year’s may be the first with other names on the ballot.
Assad won 98 percent of the vote in the 2007 referendum on his leadership that Syria claimed garnered a 95 percent turnout. At the time, the United States congratulated him for defeating “zero other candidates.”
However, a new electoral law set out restrictions that will prevent a number of opposition figures from running. Candidates must have lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years before their nomination; they cannot be dual citizens; and they must have the support of 35 members of parliament.
Potential candidates must submit their applications for consideration in the coming 10 days, the speaker of Syria’s parliament, Mohammad Jihad Lahham, said in comments broadcast by state television. Members of parliament quoted by the pro-government al-Watan newspaper on Monday said they expected more than one candidate to run.
Assad has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but there is little doubt that he will run. Over the past few months, his campaign has quietly swung into action. State media have broadcast images of him visiting the displaced in war-torn suburbs of Damascus. On Sunday, he went to the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, according to state media, reinforcing his image as a protector of Syria’s minorities.
Voting for overseas Syrians will take place at their country’s embassies May 28, Lahham said, but he gave no details of logistical arrangements that would help more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees vote.
For some, news of the election brought fear of further violence. Some analysts have said that the government is likely to try to secure its grip on Homs and the restive Damascus suburbs ahead of the vote.
In the central city of Homs, once deemed the capital of the revolution, rebels have been attempting to fend off a government offensive for the past week. Berbers al-Tillawi, an opposition activist in the city, said rebels were showing “epic power” in standing their ground, despite being besieged and cut off from supplies. However, four people were killed Monday, he said.
“This election is a charade by the regime, a game they play,” he said.
Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.