Syria will hold a presidential election on May 26 that is virtually certain to return President Bashar al-Assad for a third term – an event that Washington and the opposition say is a farce designed to cement his autocratic rule.
Assad’s family and his Baath party have ruled Syria for five decades with the help of the security forces and the army, where his Alawite minority dominate.
This year is the 10th anniversary of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters which triggered a civil war that has left much of Syria in ruins.
The multi-sided conflict has sucked in world powers, killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more, but is now nearing its end with Assad, supported by Russian and Iranian allies, back in control of most of the country.
Nominations for the election close in 11 days’ time. Candidates must have lived in Syria for the last 10 years, which prevents key opposition figures in exile from standing.
“I call on Syrians to exercise their right to elect the president,” parliamentary speaker Hammouda Sabbagh said after parliament announced the election date.
He said the poll would be a signal that Syria had successfully overcome its devastating conflict.
The poll was dismissed by the mainstream Turkish-backed opposition alliance, whose forces control a swathe of territory in northwestern Syria where millions of civilians have fled to shelter from Assad’s bombs.
“We consider Assad’s parliament to have no legitimacy, and this is a theatrical farce and a desperate effort to reinvent this criminal regime,” said Mustafa Sejari, a prominent opposition figure.
Opposition and Western leaders have been demanding for a decade that Assad, whom they accuse of crimes against humanity, step down.
“These elections will neither be free nor fair. They will not legitimize the Assad regime,” US envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the U.N. Security Council last month, on the 10th anniversary of the start of the pro-democracy protests.
Assad’s supporters say Washington and its Western allies are seeking to bring Assad down with the crippling sanctions they have imposed.
“Despite the expectations of Syria’s enemies, the presidential ballot will go ahead,” said Husam al Deen Khalsi, a politician from Latakia province, a bastion of Assad’s Alawite sect. “Our rulers have not followed Washington’s or Israel’s dictates.”
Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who became president in 1971 after a military coup the previous year.