Syrians participated in parliamentary polls on Monday but a call for boycott by the opposition raised apprehensions that these elections may not be enough to bridge the political divide, widened by a bloody internal conflict that has lasted more than a year.
Monday's elections were the first multiparty polls held in Syria in 50 years. The embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad views these elections as a befitting response to opposition-led protests, which have mutated over time into an armed rebellion.
The voting is being held three months after the government adopted a new Constitution. Syria's new basic law allows formation of multiple parties. It also limits the President's stay in office to two seven-year terms.
As a result of the government-initiated “reform process”, nine political parties have been formed, out of which seven have fielded candidates for the 250-member Parliament. With the ruling Baath party as the nucleus, pro-regime parties have assembled under the banner of the National Progressive Front. Syria's Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said voting was being held in an atmosphere of “democracy and political pluralism”.
The opposition, however, dismissed the polls as a sham. Bashar al-Haraki, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), was quoted as saying the elections were a “farce which can be added to the regime's masquerade”.
Analysts say polling in the opposition bastions will be crucial for the regime, for a higher turnout in these areas would dent the credibility of the government's foes. However, there were mixed reports about the polling in some of the major anti-regime strongholds. Opposition videos showed images of empty streets in the Derra, the birthplace of the Syrian revolt.
However, official media had footage showing a significant voter turnout in the embattled city. The streets were also empty in Hama, another major seat of dissent against the Al Assad dynasty.
The New York Times is reporting that in central Hama, eastern Deir al-Zour and some other cities, the opposition prevented display of polling material, and chose instead to paste pictures of people who had died during the course of the uprising.
However, the opposition, again showed its chronic disunity, with one so far unknown opposition group, unhappy with the globetrotting SNC, announcing that it had clandestinely formed a rival Transitional Syrian Parliament of its own.
The elections are being held at a time when the peace plan authored by Kofi Annan, U.N. and Arab League envoy, is yet to take firm root. One of the key features of this plan is to implant a ceasefire, buttressed by withdrawal of forces from areas of conflict, under the scrutiny of U.N. monitors. But with fighting in many trouble-torn enclaves persisting, the fate of the Annan plan hangs in a balance.