Polling stations were opened on Wednesday across Syria for the presidential elections that will bring Bashar al-Assad to the fourth term.
The government says the elections show Syria is functioning normally despite a decades-long war, but the opposition and Western nations view it simply as an endorsement of Assad’s power. Assad is in the race against two obscure candidates.
In the Faculty of Arts of the University of Damascus, hundreds of students lined up to vote, with several buses parked outside.
“We came to elect President Bashar al-Assad … without him Syria would not be Syria,” said Amal, a nursing student.
“With our blood and soul we sacrifice our lives for you Bashar,” sang other students before the polling stations opened.
Authorities have held large demonstrations across the country in recent days in an effort to secure large turnout in the elections, officials said privately.
The country’s powerful security apparatus that supports Assad’s government, dominated by the Alawite minority, has also instructed senior officials to vote, they added.
“We were told we must go to the polls or take responsibility for not voting,” said Jafaar, a Latakia government employee who gave his name only out of fear of reprisals.
Assad first took power in 2000 following the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled for 30 years earlier.
Assad’s government was defined by a decade-long war that erupted after peaceful protests against his authoritarian rule in 2011. The conflict killed hundreds of thousands of people and expelled 11 million from their homes, about half the country’s population.
In some parts of the southern city of Deraa, the scene of the first anti-Assad protests against his authoritarian government, local personalities called a general strike to protest the elections.
“All people reject the government of Hafez’s son,” read graffiti scribbled in several cities in southern Syria, referring to Assad’s father.
The other two candidates in the elections are former Deputy Cabinet Minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, head of a small, officially authorized opposition party.
Foreign ministers from France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States said in a statement on Tuesday, criticizing leader Bashar al-Assad, that the elections would not be free or fair.