Of the 250 seats, 167 are reserved for the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF) coalition, led by Assad's Baath party.

 

The party itself is guaranteed 131 seats, or 52 per cent of the total.

  

The other 83 seats are allocated to so-called independent candidates "close to the authorities," according to lawyer Hassan Abdel-Azim, spokesman for six banned parties operating under the umbrella National Democratic Rally (NDR).

 

Opposition demands

  

Opposition hopes of increased democracy were raised, falsely, by the accession to power of Bashar al-Assad in 2000 on the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled with an iron fist.

 

Late in 2005, opposition parties, which are tolerated but have no legal status, launched an appeal for "democratic change" in Syria but the plea failed to bring positive action.

  

The following May, the authorities jailed 10 opposition figures who had signed a statement seeking reform in the country's relations with Lebanon, where Syria was the power-broker for nearly three decades.

  

Damascus has been subject to intense international pressure since the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005 in Beirut, for which Syria was widely accused despite its denials.

  

Among other demands, the opposition wants a modern law authorising the creation of parties other than the Baath and its allies, and abrogation of the state of emergency which has been in force since 1963.

  

After the poll, a referendum is planned on a new mandate for al-Assad. He received 97.29 per cent of votes in a plebiscite after the death of his father.