Syrians were voting Wednesday in presidential elections widely dismissed by experts and activists as a sham poll, rigged in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad, 55, who has repeatedly been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, is expected to win an election for the second time since an uprising in 2011 spiraled into civil war.
In 2014, Assad received 88.7% of the vote in an election that took place in government-controlled parts of the country. At the time, opposition groups ran large swathes of Syria – Assad’s forces have since wrested control over most of that territory. Turkey controls some territory in the northwest of the country and the US military has a presence in the country’s northeast.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Syria’s war, and millions have been displaced. Assad is accused of launching at least three major chemical attacks on civilians in opposition-controlled areas since 2013. Syria’s government denies allegations of war crimes and of having used chemical weapons. It also dismisses criticism of its election process.
Two relatively unknown people are ostensibly running against Assad in this election: former deputy cabinet Abdallah Saloum Abdalla and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, the head of a small, state-sanctioned opposition party.
The US, UK, France, Germany, and Italy issued a joint statement saying the poll “will neither be free nor fair.”
The countries said free and fair elections should be convened under UN supervision and all Syrians should be allowed to participate in a safe and neutral environment, including those who are internally displaced, refugees, and members of the diaspora.
“Without these elements, this fraudulent election does not represent any progress towards a political settlement. We urge the international community to unequivocally reject this attempt by the Assad regime to regain legitimacy without ending its grave human rights violations and meaningfully participating in the UN-facilitated political process to end the conflict,” the statement said.
Assad responded defiantly to the international community shortly after casting his vote, saying: “As a state, we do not care at all about such statements (from Western countries).” He added that “what the people say” is more important.
The election comes amid a financial tailspin in Syria that has caused its currency to plummet and poverty levels to balloon to nearly 90%. The price of food has skyrocketed and most Syrians can barely afford basic staples.
Assad’s expected win, despite the economic crisis, has opened the election to the mockery of experts and activists.
“The international community should treat this as a non-event. It’s absolutely not changing the economic conditions on the ground. It’s not changing the political conditions on the ground. Syrians are just as oppressed. They will be just as oppressed on Thursday as they are today. There’s absolutely nothing that’s changed or will change in their lives,” said Jomana Qaddour, head of the Syria portfolio and non-resident Senior Fellow at Atlantic Council.
“The Assad regime and its allies want to continue to affirm that they will not budge an inch despite everything the country has been through in the last ten years, despite the fact that they’re trying to keep the country alive economically,” she added. “They’re still adamant about not changing a single thing.”
Activists such as Wafa Ali Mustafa, whose father was detained eight years ago and has been not heard from since, says that fear of repercussions by Assad’s dictatorship has propelled many to the ballot boxes.
“Syrians inside … know very well what happens to those who say no. It happened to my father and it happened to others. So who dares to say no?” said Mustafa.
“Everyone knows it doesn’t matter if they vote or not,” she said. “The result is already known for everyone. But still they need (the election) to use people to be part of this silly play.”