Waving photos of their leader and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to president Bashar al-Assad today as they voted across government-controlled parts of the country in a presidential election decried by the opposition as a charade.
Some stamped their ballots with blood after pricking their fingers with pins supplied by the government in a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism. Others chose to vote in full sight of other voters and television cameras - rather than go behind a partition curtain for privacy.
Men and women wore lapel pins with Dr Assad’s picture and said re-electing him would give the Syrian leader more legitimacy to find a solution to the devastating three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.
Even as crowds of Dr Assad’s supporters flocked to the polls in Damascus, the sounds of war were inescapable.
The dull sounds of explosions reverberated in the distance as pro-government forces and rebels battled in nearby rural towns and ashy plumes of grey smoke marked the skyline. Several mortar hits were reported in the capital, though the voting was largely peaceful.
The balloting is only taking place in government-controlled areas and Assad’s win - all but a foregone conclusion - would give him a third seven-year term in office, tighten his hold on power and likely further strengthen his determination to crush the insurgency against his rule.
The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a sham. The so-called internal Syrian opposition groups seen as more lenient are also boycotting the vote, while many activists around the country are referring to it as "blood elections" for the horrific toll the country has suffered.
The vote is also Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election in more than 40 years and is being touted by the government as a referendum measuring Syrians' support for Dr Assad. He faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little known in Syria before declaring their candidacy for the country's top post in April.
In government strongholds of Damascus and Lattakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing, all the while declaring undying loyalty to Dr Assad.
In Homs, Syria's third largest city, the atmosphere was more restrained, with people standing in long lines to vote. In the destroyed Old City, recently evacuated by hundreds of rebel fighters after a cease-fire agreement with Dr Assad's government forces, there was only one polling station, placed in the courtyard of a the heavily damaged St Mary's Church of the Holy Belt.
The government has presented the election as the solution to the conflict, but there is no indication it will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation.
The stage-managed balloting also will likely put to rest any illusions that the man who has led Syria since 2000 has any intention of relinquishing power or compromising to reach a political solution.
Syrian TV showed Dr Assad cast his ballot in the morning hours at a school in the posh Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki where he resides. The footage showed him in a dark blue suit and tie, flanked by his wife, Asma, both smiling as they cast their vote.
In his first public appearance since undergoing heart surgery in March, foreign minister Walid al-Moallem voted with a Syrian flag wrapped like a shawl around his neck. He declared: “The path toward a political solution to the crisis begins today.”
A mortar shell crashed near the Opera House on Omayyad Square, one of Damascus’ two landmark plazas, but caused no damage or casualties.
At a polling station in the upscale Dama Rose hotel in central Damascus, a cup filled with pins was on offer for those who chose to vote in blood. Some pricked their fingers repeatedly to ensure they drew enough blood to mark the circle under Assad’s name on the ballot. Most, though, voted in ink.
"With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety," said student Uday Jurusni, who voted in blood, after pricking his finger. "He is my leader and I love him."