Syrians have voted in Government-held parts of the war-torn country to elect a new parliament amid strict health measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
- About 1,656 candidates are standing for the 250-seat People’s Assembly
- President Bashar al-Assad is not standing in the election
- Syria has reported 496 coronavirus cases and 25 deaths, however the actual numbers are thought to be much higher
The vote on Sunday (local time) was the third to take place in Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011. The conflict has left more than than 400,000 dead, displaced half the country’s population and caused more than 5 million to become refugees, mostly in neighbouring countries.
The elections coincide with a new wave of US sanctions, which came into effect last month, along with an economic crisis and a currency crash, which has dragged more of the county’s population into poverty.
Some 1,656 government-approved candidates are running this year for the 250-seat People’s Assembly. The total number of eligible voters hasn’t been announced.
As in previous elections in Syria, the vote is expected to produce a rubber-stamp body loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
No vote was held in the north-western province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, or in the country’s north-east, which is controlled by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.
Voting in Government-held areas passed without major incident, but in the rebel-held north, a car bomb late on Sunday killed five people and wounded dozens near a border crossing with Turkey, according to Syrian opposition activists and Turkey’s state-run news agency.
Inside polling stations, workers were wearing masks and gloves, and voters had to use their own pens in the sanitised booths.
Once their ballots were cast, they had to leave immediately, as no gatherings were allowed inside. People also had to keep a safe distance while waiting for their turn.
Mr Assad and his wife Asma, both wearing masks, voted on Sunday morning in Damascus at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
After the casting his ballot, Information Minister Imad Sarah told reporters the election “emphasises the cohesion of the Syrian homeland, that after nine years of war, Syria will not kneel”.
Elections had been delayed due to coronavirus
Mr Assad had twice postponed the country’s parliamentary elections this year in light of restrictions in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Mr Assad himself is not standing for election.
Syria, which had a pre-war population of 22 million, has reported 496 coronavirus cases and 25 deaths.
However, the actual numbers are likely far higher and increases have been reported in recent days.
Syria’s last parliament was elected in April 2016, when large parts of Syria were outside Government control and people there did not take part.
Since then, Mr Assad’s forces have captured much of Syria with the help of his allies Russia and Iran.
The head of the Higher Judicial Committee for the Elections, Judge Samer Zumriq, confirmed on Saturday in a statement to state news agency SANA that more than 7,400 polling stations had been set up in 15 voting districts.
They included 1,400 stations where troops and members of the country’s security services would vote.
Polling centres opened at 7:00am and were scheduled to close 12 hours later. The deadline was extended by four hours until 10:00pm because of high turnout.
Results were expected to be announced on Monday.
Ruling party guaranteed a majority
Some 167 seats are allocated for Mr Assad’s ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party — guaranteeing it a solid majority — while the rest are allocated for independents, including merchants, businessmen and industrialists.
This year’s vote comes as the country is also witnessing harsh economic conditions including a crash in the local currency worsened by US sanctions and an economic crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.
The US Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act envisages sanctions on Syrian troops and others responsible for atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war, and also provides funding for war crimes investigations and prosecutions.
Syria calls the sanctions acts of “economic terrorism”.
Outgoing legislator Mohannad Haj Ali, who is under US and European sanctions, said the country was experiencing a “suffocating economic and political siege”.
He added that Syrian citizens were aware of corruption within state institutions and Mr Assad had started “dealing with corruption by tracking down on the corrupt”.
Mr Haj Ali did not give any names, but his comments came after Mr Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was once described as central to Syria’s economy, pleaded for Mr Assad to help prevent the collapse of his business.
Mr Makhlouf has been under pressure to pay back tens of millions of dollars to the state