Another "yes" voter, Mohammed Ali Sharif, a 62-year-old pensioner, said "Syria has shown to the world it can resist in the face of foreign forces."

Results delayed

The results of the referendum will be announced on Tuesday, a day later than expected, the state news agency SANA said on Monday.
  
Related links

Profile: Bashar al-Assad
Timeline: In power in Syria

The delay was attributed to the huge turnout in Sunday's poll which prompted election officials to keep polling stations open for three hours  longer than scheduled.
  
"The Syrian people spoke out yesterday. Participation in the referendum was enormous, never before seen in the country's history," Bassam Abdel-Majid, interior minister, said.

Ahead of the referendum, state media and the Baath party emphasised al-Assad's command of a strong state, economic reforms and upholding of Arab rights in the face of sectarian violence in Iraq and instability in Lebanon.

"With Bashar, Syria is the homeland of security and stability," the government said in a message to mobile phone subscribers. "Today Syria has a rendezvous with its future."

Second referendum

Al-Assad and his wife voted in Damascus's faculty of medicine on Sunday morning, as students and doctors sang his praises. "God, Syria and Bashar," chanted workers at the polling station.

Bashir al-Assad took power in Syria
after his father died in 2000 [AFP]
The referendum, in which about 12 million Syrians are eligible to vote, is the second for Assad.

In July 2000, he was the sole candidate to succeed his father Hafez who had died the previous month. The official result then showed that Bashar received 97.29 per cent support.

Voters are being asked whether they "approve the candidacy of Dr Bashar al-Assad for the post of president of the republic".

Hassan Abdel-Azim, a spokesman for six banned opposition parties operating under the umbrella National Democratic Rally (NDR), said that needed to be other candidates standing "for there to be real elections".

"The NDR will boycott the referendum ... Our claims for an amendment to the electoral law have not been taken into account," he said.

Emergency law

Syria has been under emergency law since the Baath party came to power in 1963 and with opposition parties banned, authorities have clamped down on pro-democracy activists.

After Hafez al-Assad's three decades in power, the Western-educated Bashar raised hopes that the inflexible political system might be liberalised. But the brief period of relative freedom of expression, known as the Damascus Spring, was rapidly quashed with the arrest of 10 opposition activists in 2001.

Once his second term is confirmed al-Assad faces a number of significant challenges.

The United Nations security council is expected to approve the creation of a tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister.

A UN investigation has implicated Lebanese and Syrian security officials in the killing, a claim Syria denies.

Economic performance is also central for al-Assad's strategy of building legitimacy and raising the country's profile as a pivotal Middle East player but oil exports have been declining and a huge welfare state and public sector are deepening the budget deficit.