Monday, 07 May 2012 11:07
DAMASCUS: Polling stations opened in Syria on Monday for the first "multiparty" parliamentary elections in five decades, being held against a backdrop of violence and dismissed as a sham by the opposition.
Voting began at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) across Syria, which has been swept by raging unrest since March last year, when President Bashar al-Assad resorted to force in a bid to quash a revolt against his autocratic regime.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 11,100 people have died in the violence, mostly civilians.
The vote, initially scheduled for September 2011, was postponed to May 7 after Assad announced the launch of a reform process.
Security and logistical concerns notwithstanding, the credibility of the vote has also been hit by the refusal of the main opposition forces to participate.
Monday's election will be the first time Syria has held multiparty elections since the adoption in February by referendum of a new constitution that ended the five-decade stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party.
Nine parties have been created, and seven have candidates vying for a parliamentary seat. Pro-regime parties led by the Baath are represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
"I am voting because I support the reforms, but the new parliament needs to tackle unemployment as a priority so that young Syrians don't emigrate," said Shahba Karim, 18, after casting her vote in central Damascus.
"I think these elections will bring a definitive end to the crisis." Outside the polling station, voters were handed flyers in support of the various candidates.
"These elections must be credible and people must participate to show they are concerned by the crisis gripping the country because that is the only way we will find a solution," said Laith al-Allaj, a 22-year-old university student.
A total of 7,195 candidates have registered to stand for the 250 seats, state news agency SANA said.
Political specialists, however, believe the elections will not make any significant changes in Syria, where a tenuous UN-backed ceasefire that came into effect April 12 has failed to take hold.
More than 600 people have died since the truce began, according to Britain-based Observatory. UN observers deployed in the country to monitor the truce have reported violations on both sides of the crisis.
The Syrian opposition has dismissed the vote as a sham and a ploy by the government to buy time and to dupe the international community into believing the regime is serious about reforms.
Bashar al-Haraki, a member of the Syrian National Council, the principal opposition coalition, has labelled the elections a "farce which can be added to the regime's masquerade." The 12,000 polling stations are due to close at 10:00 pm (19H00 GMT).
Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012