Proposed Constitution reduces the Baath Party's power

Syrians were called to the polls on Sunday to vote on a new Constitution in the face of opposition calls for a boycott and deadly violence that Washington said made the exercise “laughable.”

The new text ends the legal basis for the five-decade stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party but leaves huge powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.

The opposition says the changes are cosmetic and that only Mr. Assad's ouster will suffice after 11 months of repression by his security forces that human rights groups say have left more than 7,600 people dead.

On Saturday alone, 98 people were killed, 72 of them civilians, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As polling was under way, the Britain-based watchdog reported new violence around the country that left 16 civilians and 14 security force personnel dead.

In the central city of Homs — under assault by regime forces for more than three weeks — shelling resumed of the rebel district of Baba Amro, dashing Red Cross hopes of a lull to allow the evacuation of two wounded Western journalists.

Syrian state television aired live footage from a number of polling stations around the country and reported that “large number of voters” had turned out.

In Homs, no voting appeared to be taking place, activist Hadi Abdullah told AFP after touring parts of the city where rebels are active.

“There are no people in the streets. Everything is shut, and there is not a single polling station,” he said.

Foreign journalists have very limited freedom of movement in Syria as a result of stringent restrictions imposed by the authorities.

Mr. Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter earlier this month, in the latest step in what he says is a cautious process of reform.

Damascus's allies, Beijing and Moscow, which have blocked action against the regime at the U.N. Security Council, have expressed support for the process.

But White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “It's actually quite laughable — it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution.” “Promises of reforms have usually been followed by an increase in brutality and have never been delivered upon by this regime since the beginning of peaceful demonstrations in Syria,” he said earlier this month.

Drawn up by a committee of 29 people appointed by the President, the new charter would drop the highly controversial Article 8 in the existing charter, which makes Mr. Assad's Baath party “the head of state and society.”

Instead, the new political system would be based on “pluralism,” although it would ban the formation of parties on religious lines.

Under the new charter, the President would maintain his grip on broad powers, as he would still name the Prime Minister and government .

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