Syrians vote amid heavy security
(CNN) — Syrians went to polls across the country Monday as more than 7,000 candidates vied for 250 seats in parliament amid continued international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to step aside.
The opposition urged Syrians to boycott the elections, saying a vote for any of the candidates amounted to a vote for al-Assad.
“We are moving ahead till we topple the regime,” read a slogan on an opposition election poster that purported to show its candidates: victims of al-Assad’s violent crackdown on those calling for his ouster.
Security was heavy across Syria at 7 a.m., when voters began casting ballots in the parliamentary elections, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported. It said judicial supervision of the vote would ensure “fairness, freedom and democracy.”
Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar “affirmed that voting is proceeding normally, with voting centers witnessing considerable turnout, adding that there are no problems so far with the exception of some minor things that usually occur in elections,” the government news service reported late Monday afternoon.
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But the opposition offered a different view. It said general strikes and election boycotts were under way in a number of locations in the provinces of Daraa and Hama.
Reports of clashes also emerged.
At least 34 people were killed Monday, including five children, two women and five defected soldiers, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group.
SANA reported that 15 military members were buried Monday.
In parts of Daraa province, the opposition network said regime thugs were trying to force civilians to vote. Gunfire was reported in Yadouda, where security forces used bulldozers to open roads and break a strike, the group said.
The election follows the adoption of a new constitution under which political parties can compete with al-Assad’s ruling Baath Party. A referendum in February, hailed by government supporters as a step toward reform, was widely ridiculed by analysts and the opposition as window dressing.
Spurred by the success of popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians first took to the streets in March 2011 calling for reforms and increased political freedoms. But a brutal crackdown against demonstrators saw the movement quickly devolve into an uprising with an armed resistance.
World powers, including many of Syria’s Arab neighbors, have condemned the violence, which has pitted al-Assad’s Alawite minority-dominated government against a predominantly Sunni uprising. Al-Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot.
The United Nations estimates at least 9,000 people have died in the conflict, though the opposition said the death toll is higher. The Local Coordination Committees of Syria puts the toll at more than 11,000.
CNN cannot independently verify reports of violence and deaths within Syria as the government has restricted access by most of the international media.
In Syria’s capital, a student at Damascus University said she was trying to be optimistic about the elections.
“Maybe these new parliamentarians will do something (to) push the regime to change. Who knows?” said the student, who identified herself as Obi. “But I’m telling you, the polling stations are empty. And I don’t think too many people are going to go (to) the ballot boxes.”
In southern Syria, a man who identified himself as Mammon said he was refusing to cast a ballot in Daraa.
“I see all the government moves at the moment as gutless and pointless. How can we say that we are gonna be happy about this election when this guy is killing the people?” he asked.
In the embattled Baba Amr neighborhood in the city of Homs, an opposition member identified as Abo Odi said there was no sign of an election in the bombed-out community.
“Homs is totally destroyed, and some neighborhoods are empty of people and the rest of the city is controlled by the army or by (the rebel Free Syrian Army),” he said.
The state-run news agency described what it said were the opinions of several student voters. One called on authorities to fight corruption, while another asked for the creation of more jobs.
Election centers were set up at border crossings, state media reported, “to enable citizens leaving or arriving in Syria to practice their right to elect.”
Thousands have fled the violence in Syria, primarily crossing the border into Turkey. On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited a refugee camp along the Turkey-Syria border, where he promised to allow the more than 23,000 Syrians living in Turkish camps to stay until they decide they want to return to their country.
The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for 42 years. Al-Assad’s father, Hafez, ruled for three decades and was routinely criticized for his brutal handling of dissent. Bashar al-Assad assumed the mantle from his father in 2000.
Both the Syrian regime and the rebel Free Syrian Army have agreed to a peace plan brokered by Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League joint special envoy. A key element of the plan involves a cease-fire by all parties plus the withdrawal of Syrian forces from populated areas.
But there have been continuing reports of attacks and clashes since an April 12 cease-fire went into effect.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the elections would not mean much if they were occurring amid violence. “Only a comprehensive and inclusive political dialogue can lead to a genuine democratic future in Syria,” said a representative for Ban in a statement. “These elections are not taking place within that framework. Moreover, a democratic process cannot be successful while violence is still ongoing. It is essential that there be a cessation of violence in all its forms and action to implement the joint special envoy’s six-point proposal.”
The plan calls for the government to allow humanitarian aid groups access to the population, the release of detainees, initiation of political dialogue and withdrawal of troops from city centers.
Seventy U.N. observers are in Syria, according to the state-run news agency, with more expected next week and 300 expected by the end of the month to monitor the cease-fire and peace plan.
CNN’s Saad Abedine in Atlanta and Ivan Watson, Yesim Comert and journalist Omar al Muqdad in Istanbul, Turkey, contributed to this report.