Syrians prepare to go to polls in one-horse presidential election

Two opposing candidates no threat to continued Assad rule

Old and new Damascus are festooned with banners, posters and placards bearing the image of President Bashar al-Assad.

Two- and three-storey-high Syrian flags hang from commercial and residential blocks in the modern city. Tiny triangular flags flutter on cords strung across broad streets in both upscale neighbourhoods and ancient alleyways where little boys wheel round and round on bicycles.

Huge billboards flash Dr Assad’s shy smile in Seven Fountains Square in front of the Central Bank. Nearby, on Youssef al-Azmeh Avenue, Syria’s most famous chocolate-maker, Ghroui, displays in its window boxes for its delicious wares decorated in the colours of the Syrian flag and commanding buyers to vote.

Here and there are banners calling upon voters to cast their ballots for former minister and businessman Hassan al-Nouri, one of Dr Assad’s two rivals for the top job. He is a wealthy man who is financing his own campaign. The other contestant, Maher al-Hajjar, a member of the Communist party, does not seem to have the resources to post campaign material.


Economic problems

Both candidates are critical of the government for failing to deal with the country’s economic and social problems but not of Dr Assad for his handling of the insurgency that has killed 100,000-160,000 and driven nine million Syrians from their homes.

Tomorrow’s presidential election is a one-horse race which will be won by the incumbent, giving him another seven years in office with the option, under the new constitution, of standing for another term.

Many Syrians living in government-controlled areas see Dr Assad as the man directing an existential battle against radical jihadis of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the fearful al-Qaeda renegade Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as "Daish".

The election is seen as a referendum on Dr Assad’s leadership during more than three years of conflict and an exercise meant to boost his national and international legitimacy.

Outside the gates of Damascus University in the Mezze district, several students tell The Irish Times they intend to vote.

In her third year of medicine, Maya, from the central city of Hama, says: “Of course I’m going to vote. It is an important election. This is the first time we have the experience of choosing between candidates.

“However, I do not think the election will calm the situation. There will still be problems, but I hope it will get better.”


Hebba, a philosophy student, says: “I hope the election will bring safety to the people,” while Damascene Salibi, who is studying hotel management, says: “The election is very good for us. No one in the world has the right to decide for us [who our rulers should be]. I will vote.”

Yasser, a vendor selling and mending sunglasses at a table in the Baramki district of central Damascus, argues the election will promote “peace and justice in Syria”. He comes from Hasakeh in the extreme north.

Ibrahim, a customer waiting for his glasses to be fixed, expresses the hope that “everyone will go to the polls and choose the right candidate.”


Dhia, a cigarette peddler from the town of Jdeidat Artous, west of the capital, asserts: “I will vote, it is a duty and a right.”

Damascus is calm, busy and bustling although the day is punctuated with occasional insurgent mortar fire and the crash from government artillery lobbing shells in response.

The insurgents promised to disrupt voting by peppering the city with mortars and cutting internet and phone communications. Yesterday, international phone lines and internet lines were cut for six hours.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times