Syrians are voting in the first parliamentary elections under a new constitution that paved the way for a multiparty system in the country.
Voting began at 7:00am (04:00GMT) across Syria on Monday. It was initially scheduled for September 2011, but was postponed for six months after President Bashar al-Assad announced the launch of a reform process.
Violence rocked the east of the country ahead of Monday’s vote, underlining the challenge of holding a credible poll while bloodshed continues, complicating the task of UN observers monitoring a ceasefire declared on April 12.
Security and logistical concerns notwithstanding, the credibility of the vote has also been hit by the refusal of the main opposition forces to participate.
A deadly uprising has raged across the country since mid-March 2011, claiming more than 11,100 lives, mostly civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The United Nations estimates that more than 9,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Al Jazeera is unable to independently verify reports of violence, as the Syrian government has placed strict restrictions on reporting.
Baath party influence
Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught, reporting from Istanbul in neighbouring Turkey on Monday, said that Syrian groups had mixed feelings towards the polls.
“When large parts of the country are effectively under military occupation, when large parts of the country are at great physical odds with the central government, and there is in some parts of the country absolutely a rein of terror, how is it possible to move on with a consentual democratic process? That’s the argument on one side,” McNaught said.
“The argument on the other side is that we are seeing the beginnings, however fragile however incomplete, of political pluralism in Syria. Of these eight parties [participating in the polls], there are seven parties more than the people contesting the last election. It has been a one party state for many decades now, and perhaps we are seeing a change in that?”
However, our correspondent added that a proposal in the new constitution mandated that half the representatives in the new parliament must be from workers groups, particularly peasants or countryside workers.
“And critics of that proposal argue that the unions that represent [these workers] are controlled by the Baath party; so all roads lead back to the Baath party, whether formally or informally,” McNaught said.
Monday’s election will be the first time Syria has held multiparty elections since February’s adoption by referendum of a new constitution that ended the five-decade hold on power of the ruling Baath party.
Nine parties have been created, and eight have candidates vying for a parliamentary seat.
Pro-government parties led by the Baath are represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
“By taking part in the election, Syrians are defying the campaign of terrorism and aggression led by international and regional parties implicated in a terrorist war against our country”
– Adnan Mahmoud,
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 political changes in Syria, where a tenuous UN-backed ceasefire that came into effect on April 12 has failed to take hold.
“The elections are a step in a void and will not lead to any change in the political landscape and security of Syria,” Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, told the AFP news agency.
It is taking place “amid a lack of security, continued killings and violence … while [many] are detained, suffering or displaced,” Rantawi said, dismissing the elections as “media propaganda”.
But Adnan Mahmoud, Syria’s information minister, said that voting was an act of defiance.
“By taking part in the election, Syrians are defying the campaign of terrorism and aggression led by international and regional parties implicated in a terrorist war against our country,” he said in a statement.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly blamed the violence on “armed terrorist groups” and outside parties.
The Syrian opposition has dismissed the vote as a sham. Bashar al-Haraki, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the principal opposition coalition, has labelled the elections a “farce which can be added to the regime’s masquerade”.
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However, local activists frustrated with the SNC, have formed the Transitional Syrian Parliament, a body which they say will lead the fight to bring down the Assad government.
Basam Emadi, the former Syrian ambassador to Sweden, told Al Jazeera: “The idea of a transitional parliament is looked on with a great deal of suspicion by members of the SNC which has been widely recognised as a government in exile”.
The vote also comes as UN observers are deployed in Syria to monitor a tenuous ceasefire, and as deadly violence continues to rock the country.
At least six people, including two army deserters, were killed by government forces on Sunday, the Observatory said, while the bodies of six other people were found in a mass grave in the northwestern Idlib province.
Also on Sunday, troops shelled rebel positions in the Arida village in central Homs province, wounding several people and destroying houses, the Britain-based group reported.
Government forces also raided a town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Sunday, making arrests.