Syrians are divided over the proposed text and the timing chosen by Assad for the vote.
Voting in a referendum on Syria’s new constitution has ended, with the opposition boycotting the exercise amid a continuing government assault on their strongholds.
Polls opened at 7am local time (5:00 GMT) on Sunday, with more than 14 million people over the age of 18 eligible to vote at 13,835 polling stations in an exercise that could theoretically end five decades of one-party.
With many parts of the country reeling from weeks of military assault, and army defectors engaged in a guerrilla campaign against loyalist troops, it was unclear how the ballot could prove to be convincing.
Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month in his latest reform pledge since protests erupted last March.
The resulting violence has left more than 7,600 people dead, monitors say. Syria blames the violence on “armed terrorist gangs”.
Assad has promised to hold parliamentary elections within 90 days if voters approve the new constitution. However, the decision to hold the referendum has failed to ease global pressure on his government.
Louay Safi, a leading member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group, says the new constitution will be “meaningless” in bringing about change because it is being created by a government that continues to violate its own laws in its campaign to crush the uprising.
“The major problem is that the government is violating the current constitution,” Safi told Al Jazeera. “What we fear is if the regime stays intact, the new constitution will be meaningless.
“So the real step to have a new constitution is to have a new or transitional government.”
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In Damascus, the Syrian capital, and its suburbs, opposition activists said they would try to hold protests near polling centres and burn copies of the new constitution.
“No one is going to vote,” Omar, an activist, said via Skype in advance of the referendum from the flashpoint Bab Amr district of the central city of Homs.
“This was a constitution made to Bashar’s tastes and meanwhile we are getting shelled and killed,” he said.
“More than 40 people were killed today and you want us to vote in a referendum? … No one is going to vote.”
“What should we be voting for, whether to die by bombardment or by bullets? This is the only choice we have,” said Waleed Fares, an activist in the Khalidiyah district of Homs.
Adel Safar, the country’s prime minister, said on Sunday that the opposition’s call for a boycott indicated a lack of interest in dialogue.
“If there was a genuine desire for reform, there would have been movement from all groups, especially the opposition, to
start dialogue immediately with the government to achieve the reforms and implement them on the ground,” he said.
The vote was under way on Sunday as government security forces shelled residential areas in Bab Amr for the 26th day in a row, reportedly killing at least nine people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based opposition group.
The group said that rebel soldiers had also killed at least four government troops in the city.
The SOHR said that eight civilians and 10 members of the government’s security forces were killed elsewhere in the country, bringing the total death toll for Sunday to 31.
Intense violence was reported in the province of Deraa, where the uprising first began last March.
Activist groups said at least 100 people, mostly civilians, were killed across the country on Saturday alone as government forces besieged opposition strongholds in the cities of Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Hama and Deraa.
The new constitution would drop an article making Assad’s Baath party the leader of state and society, allow for political pluralism and enact a presidential limit of two seven-year terms.
The charter, framed by a committee of 29 people appointed by Assad, would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes the Baath party “the head of state and society”.
That would effectively end the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since they seized power in a 1963 coup that brought Assad’s late father, Hafez, to power.
Instead, the new political system would be based on “pluralism,” although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.
Under the new charter, the president would maintain his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the prime minister and government and, in some cases, could veto legislation.
Article 88 states that the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state, set for 2014.
This means that Assad could theoretically stay at the helm for another 16 years.
This is Syria’s third referendum since Assad inherited power from his late father. The first installed him as president in
2000 with an official 97.2 per cent in favour. The second renewed his term seven years later with 97.6 percent in favour.
As the military onslaught continued across the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was still unable to evacuate distressed civilians from Bab Amr.
After a day of talks with Syrian authorities and opposition fighters, it said there were “no concrete results”.
“The ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent are still negotiating with Syrian authorities and opposition groups. We are attempting to go into the affected area of Baba Amro today,” said ICRC chief spokeswoman Carla Haddad.
“We are working in good faith and need consensus of all involved in the violence,” she said.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called on Syrians who still support the president to abandon him.
She said “the longer you support the regime’s campaign of violence against your brothers and sisters, the more it will stain your honor. If you refuse, however, to prop up the regime or take part in attacks … your countrymen and women will hail you as heroes.”
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, called Sunday’s vote “a farce”.