By Rana Harbi
Al-Akhbar: Syrians lined up outside polling centers around Syria on Tuesday to cast their ballots in a presidential election that Syria’s current President Bashar al-Assad is expected to win.
The voting was extended by five hours on Tuesday until midnight (2100 GMT) to allow more people to participate due to heavy turnout, state media said.
The first multi-candidate presidential election in Syria in more than 40 years is taking place after three years of a devastating crisis that has led to the death of tens of thousands and the displacement of millions of Syrians.
According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, the number of election centers in all Syrian provinces is 9,601, and they include 11,776 ballot boxes for some 15 million eligible voters.
Not everyone will be able to cast their ballot, as rebel-held regions in northern and eastern Syria will not take part in the election. The Syrian government did not open polling stations in areas dominated by the rebels who have denounced the vote as a farce and have decided to boycott what they called a “blood election.”
According to the Telegraph, a document circulated by armed opposition groups in the central Hama province warned activists not to leave their homes during the elections because of planned attacks on the city. “We warn the licentious regime that we are going to burn the land under their feet,” said the document, which was signed by the major revolutionary and military councils in the area.
Pictures of Assad and his wife casting their votes Tuesday morning at Martyr Ma’asarani School polling center in Damascus went viral on social media platforms.
Assad, who is running for a third seven-year term, faces two largely unknown candidates: independent MP and former communist party member Maher Abdel Hafiz Hajjar, and Damascus businessman Hassan Abdullah al-Nouri, a member of the internal opposition tolerated by Assad’s government.
Hajjar cast his vote in the Syrian People’s Assembly, while al-Nouri voted in the polling center of the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus.
“We started a new phase of countering terrorism and the global war on Syria by the will of the Syrian people and heroic sacrifices of its army,” said al-Nouri in a statement to the press.
Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi said to the press after casting his vote that, “only Syrians can grant legitimacy to this presidential election.”Al-Halaqi added, “Syrians today will determine the fate and future of Syria in a democratic way.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim cast his vote in the Council of Ministers in Damascus. “Syrians are imposing their will in a free, transparent and pluralistic elections,” al-Moallem said in a statement to the press.
Last week, all the entrances to the Lebanese capital were jammed as tens of thousands of Syrians flocked to their embassy in the town of Yarze overlooking Beirut to cast their absentee ballot ahead of Tuesday’s presidential elections. Between 80,000 and 100,000 people showed up at the embassy, according to various media outlets.
Even though Lebanon’s Interior Ministry said on Saturday that Syrian refugees in Lebanon will lose their status as such if they return home for a visit, reporters from different media outlets interviewed scores of Syrians on Tuesday moving across the Lebanese-Syrian border to participate in the presidential elections.
“I’m going to vote for our only president, Bashar al-Assad,” a Syrian woman told the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, LBC, reporter on the border, “I don’t care if I lose my status as a refugee.”
“The Lebanese government shouldn’t deny me my right to participate in electing my president,” said another Syrian woman. “It really shows the contempt that the Lebanese government has for democracy.”
Activists opposed to the Syrian regime have launched campaigns online and on the streets against the presidential vote. Using graffiti and the power of art, Syrian activists expressed their opposition to Assad and the elections.
According to Agence France-Presse, AFP, in the northern city of Aleppo, a young artist has painted rubbish containers white in rebel-held areas, transforming them into mock ballot-boxes. “Cast your vote here,” the artist, Jumaa, sprayed on the metal containers.
Most Western countries as well as Arab countries have prevented Syrians from voting at their embassies.
At least three flights from Kuwait, chartered by an anonymous Syrian businessman, were to bring Syrian expats home to vote. According to an Associated Press crew at the Damascus International Airport, the first flight landed in the morning hours with nearly 200 people. The people said they would vote and then immediately fly back to Kuwait.