Syrians defy insurgent unrest to vote

Queues at polling stations despite heavy security and mortar fire


Damascenes flock to a multiplicity of neighbourhood polling stations to cast ballots in Syria’s first ever multi-candidate presidential election, which incumbent Bashar al-Assad is destined to win by a landslide over rivals businessman Hassan al-Nouri and leftist Maher Hajjar.

Armed soldiers and national guardsmen at scores of checkpoints examine vehicles to prevent suicide car bombers. Fighter planes fly over head. The crash and slash of mortars fired from insurgent-held Eastern Ghouta disturb no one in the most frequently targeted south-eastern suburb of Jaramana, once a mainly Christian and Druze area but now mixed due to the influx of thousands of internally displaced people.

Expatriates At the stadium, volunteer Nadia Issa, a Christin IDP from the northern city of Hasakah, says

: “This election is important because we are going to choose president Assad freely,” in spite of opposition from the west, its Arab allies, and the exiled opposition. She criticises European countries for banning expatriate Syrians from voting. “We expect the west to respect freedom of speech.” Her family was evacuated with their possessions from their home at the compound of the Euphrates Oil Company where her husband worked as a petroleum engineer. “Many people fled with nothing.”

A steady stream of voters comes to the polling station from all over Syria: from Deraa, Raqqa, Yabroud, Sweida, Kuneitra, Homs, and above all Eastern Ghouta, the latter now held by insurgents.

A cheerful clutch of girls and boys wearing Baath party T-shirts jitterbugs down the corridor: first-time voters flashing purple fingers. A solemn Hosn Khalil Abdel Hay, accompanied by her twin girls, states: “Voting is my right, for my children. I vote for stability and security.” A deaf man in a plaid shirt holds up a purple thumb as he passes.

The stadium’s chief volunteer Nazih Sharafuddin says many have come from Mlieha, the insurgent stronghold in Eastern Ghouta. “So the rebels are firing mortars at their own people. We have 120 mortars a day from Mleiha, 6,000” since the war began. “Two thousand people come here every day to get rations” from the distribution centre run by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Not far from the stadium is a protestant church: among the death notices plastered to the gateposts is one for a soldier killed in action. Abu George, commander of the national guardsmen in this sector, warns us against entering “sniper alley,” the direct route back to central Damascus.

At a table in the polling station in a basement reception room of the Holy Cross Orthodox church in the QASSA residential area sit two lady volunteers processing voters and two women appointed by the ruling Baath party to observe balloting on behalf of Dr Assad’s rivals.

His monitors, four men in white T-shirts and baseball caps sit on a row of chairs ranged against the wall.

George Fardoul (84), born and raised during the French mandate, is voting for the first time. He abstained until three candidates contested.

“This election marks the beginning of democratic change. I want Syria to return to peaceful times,” states Mr Fardoul, once the agent for a US toothbrush firm. His father was a railway engineer on the Damascus-Homs route.

Ballot box At the elegant, historic Jawdat Hashemi school near the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel a troupe of 18-year old students proffer their identity cards, mark their ballots, fold them into envelopes, stuff them in the ballot box and dip a finger into the inkpot as we watch on the television Dr Assad and his British-born wife Asma cast their votes at a school in the diplomatic quarter. The Jawdat Hashemi school, once a French army barracks, was the first to award the baccalaureate.

Nahr Aisha is a poor breeze-block building neighbourhood in the central district of Midan not far from the “hot” Yarmouk suburb where pro- and anti-government Palestinians continue to battle.

At a tiny polling station on the main road a crush of men and women seek to thrust their ballots into the nearly full opaque plastic ballot box. More than 1,000 had voted by noon.

Hanadi Turkmani (37) a pretty woman in a headscarf, her daughter at her side, says, “I voted in all previous elections and I think this election is important for Syria, for security.”

‘Safety, security’

Down a narrow street voters queue outside two schools across from one another. Hanadi Ahmed, a large woman in a black cloak who always votes, her aunt Amira al-Laham and her daughter Marwa complain that they had to wait an hour to vote. “Safety, security,” are the words on their lips as a pair of mortars thuds nearby. “We are used to them,” Hanadi says with a smile.

Separately, at least 50 mortars struck at random in central Damascus yesterday, including two that screamed low overhead while I was sitting down to tea in the evening with a friend in a garden in the diplomatic quarter of Abu Rammaneh.

One struck a café nearby, drawing ambulances, the other did not explode. War planes promptly went into action against insurgents in the Eastern Ghouta.