Syrians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory for President Bashar al-Assad but which his opponents have dismissed as a charade in the midst of Syria's three-year civil war.
Even as crowds of Assad's supporters flocked to the polls in Damascus, where security was tight, the sounds of war were inescapable. At least three fighter jets roared low over the capital during the voting, which residents said was unusual. Several mortar hits were reported, including one that crashed near the opera house on a major plaza, though the voting was largely peaceful. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
The balloting comes amid a devastating civil war. Voting is only taking place in government controlled territories, meaning those displaced by fighting or living in rebel-held areas will not be able to take part.
All those who spoke to Reuters said they planned to vote for Assad, with the aim of giving him a third seven-year term. Many said they craved political stability and hoped the election would be a step toward a solution to end the war.
“I came and made the decision to do this for the sake of myself and my country,” said Ghada Makki, 43. “It is a national duty to vote so that we overcome the crisis happening in Syria.”
Some Damascus residents reported only a trickle of voters at polling stations in the center of the city, but an activist who contacted people in Damascus and the Druze province of Suweida described the numbers of people voting as “scary.”
“Lots of people have gone to vote and I'm not talking about the shabbiha,” he said, referring to pro-Assad militia.
It is Syria's first multicandidate election in more than 40 years, but government critics and the opposition have slammed it as a farce. Rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers and Gulf states say no credible vote can be held in a country where swathes of territory are outside state control and millions have been displaced by conflict.
Syria's two main internal opposition groups are boycotting the vote, which many activists around the country are referring to as a “blood election.” The vote excludes opponents of the Assad regime from running. But the Islamic Front and allied groups pledged not to target polling stations and urged other rebels to do the same. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Assad faces two virtually unknown opponents — Maher al-Hajjad and Hassan al-Nuri. Nuri, who studied in the United States and speaks English, told the AFP news agency he expected to come in second after Assad.
Both he and Hajjar have only lightly criticized Assad's rule, for fear of being linked to an opposition that has been branded as “terrorist” by the regime. The two men are, instead, focusing on corruption and economic policy.
Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week. More than 95 percent of those registered cast their ballots, the state news agency SANA said. However, Syrians who entered countries illegally were not allowed to take part and only 200,000 of some 3 million refugees were on electoral lists abroad.
“It's a tragic farce,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "The Syrians in a zone controlled by the Syrian government have a choice of Bashar or Bashar. This man has been described by the U.N. Secretary General as a criminal," he told France 2 television.
Observers from countries allied to the regime — North Korea, Iran and Russia — are supervising the vote, according to AFP news agency, while a security plan has reportedly been put in place in Syrian cities to prevent possible attacks against voters and polling stations.
The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters inside and outside Syria and that 9,600 voting centers have been set up around the country. An hour before voting was due to end at 7 p.m., state media said polling stations would stay open until midnight because of what officials said was heavy voter turnout.
Syria's civil war began more than three years ago as a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime. The protests were met with a heavy-handed crackdown, and to date more than 160,000 people have been killed in the violence, with millions of refugees having fled to neighboring countries.
Al Jazeera and wire services