Today, Syrians are taking to the polls to vote in a presidential election which will almost definitely result in a third seven-year term for President Bashar al-Assad, who is competing against two state-approved opponents who declared their candidacy in April.
According to the Interior Ministry, the 15.8 million eligible Syrian voters, including "legal" expatriates living abroad, will be able to vote at one of 9,600 voting centers set up throughout the country.
In practice, all of those voting place are located in government-controlled cities, meaning that those who would vote against the president — rebels, rivals, and millions of citizens displaced from their homes — won't have access to polls. Which actually doesn't matter all that much, because most opposition groups are boycotting the vote, anyway.
Not surprisingly, Western leaders have denounced the election. Though it is the first Syrian election in decades to even include more than one candidate (a loose term in this context) on the ballot, there's little pretense of a fair and open contest. T
What's more, the vote itself serves as a tool of intimidation, as the Guardian explains:
It is not so much an election – everyone knows the result after all – it is more like a head count of government supporters. To vote for anything other than Bashar al-Assad is to sign your own death warrant and that of your family, and not to vote at all means you are forfeiting your chance of any kind of future in Syria... Fear is forcing thousands to vote for Assad whose tender mercies are well known. Stories are circulating about the ways in which the regime seeks to take revenge on those whom it considers have betrayed it.
And Syrians in the government controlled areas appear eager to demonstrate that support for Assad. According to the Associated Press, voting centers are surrounded by revelry, and the voting process itself seems to be little more than a way for subjects to pay obeisance to their ruler. For example, in some locations voters are offered pins so that they can vote (for Assad) in their own blood. The AP sets the scene:
In government strongholds of Damascus and Lattakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing, all the while declaring undying loyalty to Assad. In Homs, people stood in long lines waiting to vote... "With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety," said student Uday Jurusni, who voted in blood, after pricking his finger. "He is my leader and I love him." Outside the hotel, about two dozen men banged drums, waved flags and danced as they chanted, "God, Syria and Bashar!" Streets around polling centers were awash with Assad posters.
Meanwhile, voters could hear the sound of shelling as fighting continued throughout the country.
The election charade still serves an important political purpose for the Assad regime. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Assad will use his victory to refrain from negotiating with the opposition. For some time after the conflict began in 2011, it was unclear whether the West would step in to help unseat the leader. Now, despite some recent moves by the West to offer more support to the rebel forces, it seems unlikely that the international community will forcefully attempt to help remove him from office. CSM offers a grim prediction of what the election could mean for the future:
It means that the conflict is likely to endure for many more years. Assad will feel vindicated by his reelection and will likely reject any proposed meaningful negotiations with the opposition. On the battlefield, Assad's forces will continue to systematically seize territory from the fragmented, poorly equipped armed opposition... As for regaining the country as a whole, that is not a realistic scenario for now. Neither side is strong enough to decisively defeat the other.
Still, Assad's regime will likely manipulate the election so that he wins with a majority slightly less great than in previous years. Assad claimed 97 percent of the vote in 2000 and 97.6 percent in 2007. Otherwise it might look like the whole thing is a sham.