Thousands of Syrians living in Lebanon have started voting at their country’s embassy ahead of Syria’s June 3 presidential election, the first in more than 50 years.
Most among the crowd gathered outside the embassy in central Beirut on Wednesday appeared to be supporters of Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, reflecting expectations that those who oppose him will not vote.
“There are more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and many of them say they will vote,” said Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from the scene where thousands of Syrians were queuing up to vote since 6 am in the morning.
“Some of these people came here to vote because they support Bashar al-Assad. Others are concerned that if they don’t vote, their families back in Syria may get in trouble.”
The vote, held at 39 embassies around the world on Wednesday and in the government-held territories of Syria next Tuesday, is expected to give Assad a third seven-year term in office, sidelining two lesser known candidates in the race.
Until now, like his father and predecessor Hafez, who ruled with an iron fist from 1970 to 2000, Bashar secured his two previous mandates through a referendum.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the election as a sham designed to lend Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy as the regime barred exiles from standing and with candidates needing the endorsement of 35 members of the state-controlled parliament.
The United States has called the vote a “parody of democracy”.
The government, meanwhile, has touted the vote as the political solution to the three-year-long conflict that began as an uprising against Assad’s rule.
There will be no polling stations in much of the countryside, notably northern and eastern Syria and around Damascus, or in areas of certain cities under rebel control, including Aleppo and Deir Ezzor.
Much of the international community has criticised Damascus for holding an election with the civil war still raging. But staunch Damascus allies Russia and Iran are supporting the vote, and Tehran has said it will send election observers.
The conflict began in March 2011 when the army suppressed a peaceful uprising, sparking a full-blown civil war that has killed more than 160,000 people, forced nearly half the population to flee their homes and shattered the economy.