Damascus – Vehicles travelling along al-Mazza highway, one of Damascus’s busiest roads, moved at a snail’s pace earlier this week. While some drivers sought ways out of the traffic jam by taking side roads and changing directions, others were stuck behind a long queue of cars taking part in a procession in support for President Bashar al-Assad’s re-election.
Syrians are expected to go to the polls to elect a president on Tuesday, but the vote will not take place nationwide due to the ongoing civil war. The country is divided into government-controlled areas, where the vote will take place, and areas held by opposition groups, that will not participate.
The war, which followed the popular uprising that broke out in March 2011, has left more than 150,000 people dead, and 2.7 million people as officially-recognised refugees, according to UNHCR. Another 6.5 million people are internally displaced, out of the country’s total population of 23 million.
Many Syrians living outside of the country cast their ballots on May 28-29 in advanced polling.
The election will be the first since the adoption of a new constitution in 2012 that changed the presidential vote from a referendum to a multi-candidate race. For the first time in four decades, Syrian voters will have to select between three candidates: incumbent President Bashar al-Assad, 2012 Aleppo MP Maher Hajjar, and a businessman and former minister in Assad’s 2000-2002 government, Hasan al-Nouri.
For the Syrian opposition, however, such changes are rendered irrelevant. Opposition leaders, such as the leaders of the “Building the Syrian state movement”, have described the vote as a sham and have called for a boycott of the poll.
Assad is widely expected to be granted a third term in office. His campaign, titled “Sawa” (“together” in Arabic), kicked off nearly two weeks ago. Assad has not made any public appearances following the announcement of his candidacy to discuss his programme.
The state-run al-Akhbariya TV channel conducted a lengthy interview with candidate Hajjar to highlight his presidential campaign. The interview, however, involved questions mocking the candidate, leading Hajjar to bash the TV presenter by proclaiming that the channel was “government media, [and] not a national media channel”. Hajjar’s main goals, as displayed on his campaign posters, are liberating the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, fighting corruption, improving education and protecting consumers.
The other candidate, al-Nouri, has based his presidential campaign on his background as an economist, a businessman and an industrialist. He is campaigning for a free-market economy and economic reform, and has vowed to combat corruption.
The routine of daily life in Damascus remains almost the same. The sound of artillery continues to blast out across the capital, and explosive devices land on peaceful districts neighbouring combat zones in the capital’s southern and eastern parts.
Against this backdrop, campaign paraphernalia of presidential candidates festoon nearly all the narrow lanes in Damascus, with Assad seizing the lion’s share. His larger than life posters dominate the skies of the capital, while pictures and banners of other presidential candidates remain scattered and few. “Change is a necessity,” reads one banner, while another reads, “Syria is [loyal to] he who undertakes reconstruction”.
“What shall we gain from these elections? We already know who is going to win,” said Abu Khalid, a displaced worker from Jobar district on the outskirts of Damascus. “They should have spared the price for these campaign posters that cover all the roads, and given us the money to solve our problems,” he added.
Others, meanwhile, urged Syrians to vote. “All Syrians should take part,” said Rami, an engineer working in a state-owned company, about the elections. “For those who do not like any of the three candidates, they should cast blank ballot papers, so history would mark that the turnout rate in the first Syrian presidential elections in modern history was very high – the highest in the region,” added Rami, who described himself as “a supporter of the Syrian state”.
Fadi, a physician working with one of the Syrian health ministry dispensaries, said he supported calls to boycott the polls. “If I had one percent of confidence in the regime, if I were not sure that this election is a mere lie, I would take part and vote for Hajjar. But to me, the hoax is so explicit, that I can’t participate,” he said.
Others go even further, alleging the elections are unconstitutional. Munzir, a lawyer in a private firm in Damascus, believes that the recently-ratified constitution states that all government organs and sectors shall remain impartial and unbiased towards the presidential candidates, but that this is not reflected on the ground.
“The regime cites the constitution as a justification when they feel the need for that, and it ignores the constitution when they feel it necessary. Nobody dares to question them about that,” he said.