Syria called a presidential election for June 3, aiming to give President Bashar al-Assad a veneer of electoral legitimacy in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people and driven a third of the population from their homes.
The opposition and the United States denounced the vote as a farce, and a UN spokesman said it will "hamper the prospects for a political solution." But Assad's government appears determined to hold the election as a way of exploiting its recent military gains.
The announcement Monday by Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham raises questions about how the government intends to hold any kind of credible vote within the deeply divided country, where large areas lie outside government control and where hundreds of thousands of people live in territory that is either contested, held by rebels or blockaded by pro-government forces.
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"There will not be any voting centres in areas controlled by the gunmen," Syrian lawmaker Sharif Shehadeh told The Associated Press. He said the Syrian army was present in many provinces across Syria, "and this will make up for the areas outside of government control," he added.
But Nazeer al-Khatib, an opposition activist in the northern city of Aleppo, said "the only people who will vote are the ones who support Assad."
"Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, in the elections on June 3, Bashar Assad would be holding elections over the blood of Syrians," Ahmad Alqusair, another opposition activist, said via Skype from a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border. "If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote?"
Syrian National Coalition calls vote 'an outrage'
Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000, has suggested he would seek another term in office, reflecting his determination to show he is the legitimate leader of Syria.
With the unwavering support of his strong allies, Russia and Iran, Assad has strengthened his once-tenuous hold on power in recent months with an ongoing crushing military assault to recapture key urban areas, likely hoping to have them under government control before the vote is held.
"This is an outrage that anyone would even think of holding an election in the midst of this carnage," said Rime Allaf, an adviser to the head of the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group.
"It is a slap in the face of all the efforts of the international community including the sponsors of the Geneva peace conference," Allaf added, referring to two rounds of failed peace talks between the government and the opposition held in Switzerland earlier this year.
The coalition has called on Assad to step down in favour of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until free presidential and parliament elections can be held.
Assad in campaign mode
Until now, Assad and his father, Hafez Assad, have been elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door — at least in theory — to other candidates. The new law, however, placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run.
Laham, the parliament speaker, said those seeking to run for president may register their candidacies from Tuesday until May 1. Syrian officials said the May 1 deadline may be extended if there are no presidential candidates by then.
Assad has not publicly said whether he would run, but in recent months he appeared to be in campaign mode, visiting areas recently retaken by his forces.