Syrians vote in no-contest presidential poll

Syrians are casting ballots Sunday in a poll expected to hand President Bashar al-Assad — the sole candidate — a second seven-year term in office.

Syrians are casting ballots Sunday in a poll expected to handPresident Bashar al-Assad— the sole candidate— a second seven-year term in office.

No other candidates were allowed to run for the presidency of thecountry, which is still subject to emergency law imposed back in 1963.

The Syrian parliament unanimously nominated al-Assad to remain as presidentearlier in May. At least one other contender, a lawyer, said his application was ignored.

The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) called the vote a referendum on a new constitutional term for al-Assad.

The 12 million eligible voters can either approve or reject a second term, though al-Assad, 41,is expected to easily win the support of most voters.

He became president in July 2000 in a votein which his namealone was on the ballot,succeeding his father, Hafez Assad. The elder Assad ruled Syria from 1971 until his death in June 2000.

For Sunday's polling,buildings throughout thecountry were festooned in banners bearing the image of the president. Songs declaring the people's love for himblasted fromshops and taxis.

Al-Assad'sruling Baath Party held several rallies leading up to the vote,celebrating his pending victory.

The vote comes after yet another crackdown on political opponents in Syria. Six opposition figures have been sentenced to jail terms in the past two months alone.

Al-Assad has consolidated his rule in Syria by playing on people's fears of the chaos next door in Iraq and in neighbouring Lebanon, even though Damascus is often accused of trying to destabilize its former satellite.

He has also played up recent visits to Syria by Western politicians, includingU.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in a bid to show that Syria's international isolation is coming to an end.

The United States still accuses Syria of sponsoring terrorism, aiding Hamas militants and supplying Shia Muslim Hezbollah militants, who in the past have tried to topple the pro-Western Lebanese government of Prime MinisterFouad Siniora.