Damascus – Syrians went to the polls Wednesday in areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for parliamentary elections dismissed by the opposition as illegitimate.
The vote coincides with the beginning of another round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the devastating five-year conflict, with Assad’s future a key sticking point.
Around 7,200 polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) in government-held areas — around a third of the country’s territory where about 60 percent of the population lives.
They will remain open for 12 hours unless the electoral commission decides to extend the deadline.
Assad’s Baath party, which has controlled the country for more than half a century, is expected to extend its dominance of parliament, although several parties are participating in the polls.
“I voted because this election will decide the country’s future. I hope that the winners will be true to the nation even before being true to the voters,” Yamin al-Homsi, a 37-year old who voted in Damascus, told AFP.
Samer Issa, a taxi driver, said he had “fulfilled his national duty” by casting his vote.
“Now, it’s up to the winners to fulfil their promises,” the 58-year-old added.
The presidency published photos of a smiling Assad and his wife Asma casting their ballots in Damascus and speaking to volunteers at the polling station.
And in the ancient city of Palmyra, where Russian-backed Syrian forces drove out the Islamic State jihadist group less than three weeks ago, four polling stations opened.
“I wasn’t afraid to come vote today,” one newly returned resident said.
Last month, the domestic opposition tolerated by the regime called for a widespread boycott, accusing the government of using the vote to gain leverage in peace talks.
The High Negotiations Committee, the main opposition body involved in the talks, has branded the election “illegitimate”.
In Syria’s divided second city, Aleppo, polling stations have only opened in the western government-held districts.
“These elections are a farce and I don’t believe in them,” said Mohammad Zobaidiyyeh, who works as a mechanic in the eastern rebel-controlled neighbourhoods.
– ‘Elections of resistance’ –
The vote is the second ballot since the beginning of the war in 2011, and 11,341 candidates initially sought to run for the 250 seats in parliament.
About 3,500 candidates remain in the race, after the rest withdrew “saying they had no chance of winning”, Hisham al-Shaar, the head of the Supreme Judicial Elections Committee, told reporters.
Walls across the capital Damascus were covered with campaign posters.
From the top of one of the city’s tallest buildings a banner of the Baath party proclaimed: “The elections of resistance.”
Outside a polling station at the Damascus governor’s headquarters in the eastern neighbourhood of Yusef al-Azmeh, representatives of various candidates distributed leaflets to potential voters.
But Mayssoun, 45, said she will not vote.
“Most of these candidates are rich men who live abroad and are just feeding us nonsense,” she said.
“I used to have an apartment in Yarmuk that I left because of the clashes, and now I move around from place to place,” the waitress said.
The Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk in southern Damascus was home to 160,000 people — including Syrians — but has been ravaged by fighting.
The controversial polls come at a tense time with a surge in violence in recent days threatening a fragile six-week ceasefire.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura will try again to reach a consensus at the talks starting Wednesday in Geneva on ending a war that has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced half the population.
The negotiations are aimed at agreeing a roadmap to peace, including forming a transitional government followed by general elections supervised by the United Nations in which all Syrians would be eligible to vote