Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday submitted his application to run for re-election next month, in a presidential vote decried by Western governments and political opponents as a sham.
The scheduled May 26 polls will be the second since Syria’s war broke out in 2011, the first elections taking place in 2014. The United States and the European Union have called for a political solution in the long-running conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country before elections are held.
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“The proposed Syrian presidential election this year will neither be free nor fair,” a US State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera. “In this environment, we do not assess this call for elections to be credible.”
Similarly, the French government also expressed its opposition to the upcoming election, which is widely expected to keep al-Assad in office for a fourth seven-year term after taking power following the death of his father in 2000.
“France, with its European Union partners, calls for the implementation of a credible, lasting political solution in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 in Syria,” the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs told Al Jazeera in a statement.
In December 2015, the UN’s Security Council – including al-Assad’s allies Russia and China – passed Resolution 2254, which calls for an end to hostilities and a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
It also supports an inclusive Syrian-led political process, moderated by the UN within six months, followed by the redrafting of the constitution to pave the way for new elections. Groups affiliated with ISIL, al-Qaeda and other armed organisations are to be excluded from the process.
“The presidential election scheduled this year will be neither free nor legitimate. It cannot be used as a tool to circumvent this political solution,” the French ministry said.
Potential candidates interested in taking on al-Assad have a 10-day window, which started on Monday, to submit nomination requests. They will then have to secure the approval of at least 35 members of the country’s 250-seat parliament, which is dominated by al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party.
Six presidential hopefuls have submitted requests thus far, including 50-year-old lawyer, Faten Nahar, the daughter of retired major general Ali Nahar. She is Syria’s first female presidential candidate. Another candidate is former MP Abdullah Abdullah of the Socialist Union Party, seen as being close to al-Assad and his party.
Syria’s 2012 constitution only allows a president to serve two consecutive terms, though that rule was exempted during the 2014 vote that saw al-Assad secure 88.7 percent to win a third term against two other candidates. His runner-up, businessman Hassan al-Nouri, said during the campaign that al-Assad should continue to lead the country.
“Like many other dictatorships, they use elections to replenish their power,” Syrian-Swiss academic and activist Joseph Daher told Al Jazeera. “You previously would see candidates do television issues with portraits of al-Assad behind them – it’s a joke and that’s how it happens all the time.”
The Syrian government and its security apparatuses have systematically detained, tortured, and even executed opposition activists since anti-government protests flared in 2011. Most of those who survived have fled the country.
Members of the Syrian opposition who might have been interested in running in the upcoming polls are effectively barred from taking part. Key among the obstacles is the condition that Syrians who have not lived in the country for the past 10 years are not allowed to run for office.
The Syrian National Council, an Istanbul-based coalition of opposition groups formed in 2012, has denounced the elections. “The only acceptable election in Syria is the one in which the war criminal Bashar al-Assad will not participate,” it said in a statement.
Daher said there is no viable political opposition in areas controlled by the Syrian government. He added the only groups with some popular support are based in areas that are not held by al-Assad’s government, such as the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast and former al-Qaeda affiliates Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham and their allies in Idlib in the northwest.
“Even the coalition in Istanbul has no support from within Syria,” Daher said. “And the activists who fled to Europe, Turkey and elsewhere are very divided.”
The conditions and regulations make the possibility of genuine political opposition running for office “impossible”, Daher said.
“Any serious political opponent who comes back to Syria will end up in prison,” he added. “You arrive at the border, or at Damascus Airport, and that’s it.”