President Bashar Assad’s grip on Syria is getting weaker by the day and “victory is close,” Turkey’s prime minister said Sunday in an address to thousands of cheering Syrians who fled a brutal crackdown on an anti-regime uprising.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cross-border taunt during a rare visit to a refugee camp, delivered while standing atop a bus and protected by snipers on rooftops, came a day before Syria was to hold parliament elections.
The regime has portrayed the vote for a 250-member parliament as a sign of its willingness to carry out democratic reforms. Syria’s opposition dismissed the election Sunday as a cynical attempt to salvage Assad’s tattered legitimacy and asked voters to stay away.
Polls opened early Monday morning, as state television showed images of voters lining up at polling stations. The election initially scheduled for September was postponed due to ongoing violence in Syria.
A total of 7,195 candidates including 710 women registered to contest the 250 seats, according to state news agency SANA.
The vote comes three months after the adoption of a new constitution allowing new political parties to compete with al-Assad's ruling Baath party, which has held power 41 years
Polls opened amid heavy presence of soldiers and police. A witness in Damascus said more than 100 army checkpoints were set up in areas inside the capital and near polling stations.
Assad’s opponents say elections cannot be held under the threat of gunfire. Activists said at least five people were killed by army gunfire Sunday. In late March, the UN said 9,000 people have been killed during the conflict, now in its 14th month.
“We think the elections have no credibility at all in the middle of a situation where the regime is killing the population,” said Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. “It is an insult to the democratic process.”
An April 12 truce that was part of a peace plan for Syria by special envoy Kofi Annan has failed to take hold. Even so, the international community has not declared Annan’s plan a failure, perhaps in part because it can’t agree on an alternative.
UN officials hope a wider deployment of up to 300 international truce monitors will gradually calm the situation. About 40 observers are currently in Syria.
UN observers visited the towns of Zabadani and Dael on Sunday, and regime forces fired randomly into Dael after they left, wounding three people, said Adel, a local activist.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said four people were killed by regime gunfire in the city of Homs and a fifth in an arrest raid in the capital of Damascus.
Western powers and their allies in the region, including Turkey, want Assad to step down, but are for now unwilling to use force against him. Assad allies Russia and China are expected to shield the regime from harsher diplomatic sanctions.
Despite the deadlock, Erdogan delivered a hopeful speech Sunday to thousands of Syrian refugees being sheltered by Turkey.
“Bashar is losing blood day by day,” Erdogan told a crowd at a camp near the town of Kilis, just across from Syria. “Sooner or later, those who have oppressed our Syrian brothers will be accounted for before their nation. Your victory is close.”
Turkey hosts around 23,000 Syrian refugees, who live in several tent camps along the border.
The camp Erdogan visited houses more than 9,500 refugees. Two were killed there by cross-border fire from Syria last month. It is the most organized of the camps and looks like a small town with wide streets, soup kitchens, a health clinic and even a makeshift barber shop.
Back across the border, the regime was preparing for parliamentary voting despite the boycott calls from the opposition.
Monday’s elections come three months after the adoption of a new constitution that allows the formation of political parties to compete with Assad’s ruling Baath party and limits a president to two seven-year terms. Assad succeeded his father, and the two have been in power for a total of 42 years.
Opposition leaders said any reforms without their input are a farce.
“We are against these elections because they don’t have any of the characteristics of free elections,” said Haytham Manna, head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, a group that represents activists in Syria and in exile. Manna spoke from Brussels.
In Syria, anti-regime activists also said they rejected the vote and had seen little government preparation for elections in some opposition areas.
In Dael, a southern town, residents prevented anyone from putting up election posters and instead posted photos of the 20 people from the city who have been killed in the uprising.
“They are our candidates for parliament,” said Adel, the local activist, referring to the dead. He declined to give his full name for fear of retribution.
Another activist, Fares Mohammed in the town of Zabadani northwest of Damascus, said residents there would hold a general strike to protest the elections.
“Everyone here rejects the elections,” he said by phone.
In Damascus, where support for the regime still runs strong, some said they hoped the election would lead to promised reforms.
“This parliament will be different from the previous one due to the increase in the number of the participating parties and the new constitution,” said Rabea al-Shaallan, a housewife and a mother of three.
In February, state media said 57 percent of nearly 15 million eligible voters turned out for the referendum on the constitution. The figures were impossible to verify, and opposition activists say they believe many participated out of fear.
Throughout the uprising, key constituencies have continued to support Assad, including religious minorities such as Christians and Alawites who fear a takeover by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
The Assads are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as are many members of the ruling elite.
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