Baabda, Lebanon – Thousands of Syrians living in Lebanon have been bussed to their country’s embassy near Beirut to cast ballots in early voting ahead of next week’s presidential election in the war-torn country.
Embassy staff and Lebanese soldiers on Thursday struggled to control the crowds, many of whom carried banners in support of incumbent President Bashar al-Assad.
Al-Assad’s supporters, stretching for well over a kilometre, chanted “God! Syria! Bashar!” and “We’d sacrifice ourselves for you, soul and blood, Bashar”, as they tried to shove their way past the troops to enter the embassy in Baabda.
Most had been transported there by the Syrian Workers Association, a pro-Syrian government group in Lebanon that had given voters baseball caps with the Syrian president’s portrait. Lebanon is home to about one million registered Syrian refugees.
Supporters from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party were also present.
‘Neither free nor fair’
In mid-April, Syrian embassies in Lebanon, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and a handful of other countries posted forms on their social media channels allowing expatriates and refugees to register to vote.
Those residing in Syria will vote on May 26. The United States, France, and other countries opposed to the Syrian government have called the election a sham, telling Al Jazeera the polls will be neither free nor fair. Syrian activists and opposition groups in exile expressed similar sentiments.
This is Syria’s second presidential election since the beginning of its uprising-turned-war a decade ago that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country. Al-Assad, who secured 88.7 percent of the vote in Syria’s last presidential election in 2014, is widely expected to win a fourth seven-year term.
Al-Assad is running against two government-approved opposition candidates, former state minister of parliamentary affairs Abdullah Salloum Abdullah, and Mahmoud Ahmad Marei, who heads the National Democratic Front, a small, state-endorsed opposition party. Forty-eight other presidential aspirants had submitted requests for candidacy, but their applications were rejected.
Syrian citizens who have not lived in the country for the past 10 consecutive years were ineligible to submit their candidacy, effectively ruling out any viable political opposition in the election.
But Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdul Kareem Ali praised the election, telling local television station Al Jadeed: “What is happening should please both Syrians and Lebanese.”
‘God wants him too’
One woman who arrived at the embassy from Hermel, in northeast Lebanon, at 8am sat with her seven children away from the crowd.
“We want al-Assad, and God wants him too,” the woman, who left her hometown of Raqqa in 2015, told Al Jazeera. “We lived in stability under his excellency,” she said, adding that her home in Syria had been destroyed.
Pro-government music blasted across the embassy compound as Syrian voters pushed and shoved to cast their ballots. A man draped in a Syrian flag told Al Jazeera he hoped to return to his hometown south of Idlib – in areas reclaimed by the Syrian army and allies Russia and Lebanese group Hezbollah – “once they finish clearing all the mines”. Elsewhere, a middle-aged man waved his open ballot at cameras as he ran towards a ballot box.
Syrians in Lebanon are facing pressure regardless of how they intend to vote. Access Center for Human Rights, a Lebanon-based non-profit that focuses on refugee rights, said they have witnessed cases of pro-Syrian government groups and allied Lebanese parties pressuring and even threatening undocumented Syrian refugees to vote for al-Assad.
Some Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have taken part in anti-government demonstrations have told Al Jazeera they are refusing to take part in the elections, fearing reprisal from the authorities.
On the other hand, videos have circulated showing Syrian buses and convoys of pro-Assad voters being attacked by anti-Assad Lebanese wielding sticks. A video showed the aftermath of an attack with Lebanese security forces standing near a car with smashed windows in Beirut’s Sassine Square. Attacks have also been reported in Jounieh, north of Beirut.