Syrian views vary over value of parliamentary elections

 

McClatchy Newspapers

Syrians on Monday offered up a mixed picture of where they thought their country was headed as the besieged government of President Bashar Assad held parliamentary elections, but one sentiment seemed clear: People are fatigued with both sides in a conflict that is now more than 14 months old.

“Why would I leave my work to vote?” asked Taghreed Mattar, a housewife who makes clothes at home and had no plans to vote. “I have to feed my children. None of the candidates talk about my problems. I work 15 hours a day.”

Nearly 15 million Syrians were eligible to vote, according to the government, though it seemed likely that only a fraction of those would actually cast ballots. Opponents of Assad _ both peaceful and armed _ formally boycotted the vote. Opposition activists also said that many areas of the country had gone on strike, with business owners refusing to open shops in protest.

But many who do not side with either the government or the opposition also stayed away from the polls.

“I’m not interested in voting because we vote and nothing happens,” said Seba Hussein, a university student in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. “The people running do not represent us.”

Some of those who voted said they did so hoping the government was genuine in providing long-promised reforms.

“We don’t need to stop the wheel of government,” said Nawal Smanda, an English teacher. “I have a hope that these elections will move the country forward toward democracy. We have to have these elections.”

“Elections are the first step in the political process,” said Qadri Jamil, a longtime opposition politician whose People’s Will party ran independent candidates in parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2007 but failed to win any seats. Monday’s was the first parliamentary election in which parties other than the ruling Baath Party were officially allowed to compete, though previously individual candidates could run as independents.

Jamil said past elections were rigged, but he expressed hope that this one would be fair.

“I think we will win seats, but I don’t know how many,” Jamil said. His party had candidates in all of Syria’s 14 governorates. “Change is happening.”

Jamil said he had attended the demonstrations that began in March 2011 and called for greater political and economic freedom, and that more than 100 young members of his party had been arrested for participating. As the protest movement evolved from calls for reforms to the removal of Assad, however, Jamil said he had distanced himself.

The removal of dictators in other Arab countries last year in the wake of widespread protests had not necessarily led to the realization of protesters’ demands, he said.

“As we have seen in Tunisia and Egypt, you can change the president but the system remains the same,” he said. “We want to have social justice.”

Jamil said he was engaging members of the armed opposition, hoping to facilitate reconciliation.

“Seventy percent of the armed groups were peaceful demonstrators at the beginning,” he said.

At a polling station in central Damascus, 120 of the 1,500 people election organizers said they expected to visit the station had voted by noon. Polls at most stations opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 10 p.m.

Anti-government activists in Barzeh, a neighborhood in northwestern Damascus, said the neighborhood was striking against the vote.

“Anyone who votes is a traitor,” said an activist who used the pseudonym Abu Nour.

Abdul Aziz Al Khayyer, a member of the National Coordinating Committee, the opposition’s leadership, said strikes took place in the southern city of Daraa and the central city of Hama, both places where demonstrations and violence have been commonplace in past months.

Khayyer said that in Midan, a restive area of Damascus, shop owners had been forced to open after initially refusing.

There were no reported attacks on polling stations, but the violence has not stopped in the run-up to the election.

The government news agency SANA reported that 16 military and security personnel killed by rebels were buried on Monday. SANA said the men were killed in five different governorates but did not specify when. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has kept the most detailed tally of deaths in the conflict, said that 16 people were killed by the military and government security forces on Sunday.

The London-based observatory has recorded more than 11,000 deaths since March 2011.

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @davidjenders

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