War-torn Syria to hold presidential vote on May 26

Maher AL MOUNES with Rouba EL HUSSEINI in Beirut
·3 min read

Syria will hold a presidential election on May 26 that is expected to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in the country devastated by a decade of civil war.

It will be the second vote since the conflict erupted in March 2011, killing at least 388,000 people since and displacing half the population, with no political solution in sight.

Western powers last month warned against a poll that would not be "fair or free", and opposition figure Nasr Hariri denounced the forthcoming election as a "farce".

The election, announced on Sunday by parliament speaker Hamouda Sabbagh, comes as Syria is also mired in a deep economic crisis, worsened by sanctions, the pandemic and financial turmoil in Lebanon.

Assad, who took power following the death of his father Hafez in 2000, has not yet officially announced that he will stand for re-election.

The now 55-year-old won a previous poll three years into the war, in 2014, with 88 percent of the vote.

Since then government forces have clawed back swathes of territory from rebel and jihadist forces with military help from regime allies Russia and Iran and Tehran's proxy Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.

But large parts of Syria still escape government control and polling will not take place in those areas.

They include the northwestern province of Idlib, a rebel bastion controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which is led by members of Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

The Idlib region, including nearby districts where other rebel groups are also present, is home to 2.9 million people, of whom two thirds have fled their homes in other regions ravaged by violence.

Also unable to vote will be Syrians living in border regions controlled by Turkish troops and proxy militias, and others who live in areas of the Kurdish-majority north where regime forces are not present.

Voting will only be allowed for Syrians living in government-controlled areas or those who are living abroad and registered with their country's embassies.

- Calls for boycott -

Presidential hopefuls can submit their candidacies during a 10-day period starting Monday, Sabbagh said.

They must have lived continuously in Syria for at least 10 years, meaning that opposition figures in exile are barred from standing.

Candidates must also have the backing of at least 35 members of parliament, which is dominated by Assad's Baath party.

Hariri said the vote would show the "regime is disconnected from the people who revolted against it".

Syria's main opposition coalition in exile said it rejected all elections involving Assad.

In a statement, it urged the international community to take "measures... that would require the regime to engage in a real political solution".

The poll comes amid a crushing economic crisis, compounded by a slew of Western sanctions, including from the United States, that have targeted key figures including Assad and his wife Asma.

Ahead of the vote, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the US called for a boycott of the polls, which they said would not be "fair or free" and serve only to re-empower Assad.

In mid-March, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, urged the international community not to be fooled by such elections.

"They will not legitimise the Assad regime," she said.

She told Security Council members the elections "do not meet the criteria laid out in Resolution 2254 -- including that they be supervised by the UN or conducted pursuant to a new constitution".

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