ISTANBUL -- The Syrian government carried off its anointment of President Bashar Assad to another seven years in office on Tuesday pretty much as everyone had expected it would _ with a huge celebratory turnout in government-controlled areas, angry denunciations from the United States that the exercise was illegitimate, and a surprising lack of rebel efforts to disrupt the balloting.
Turnout was difficult to estimate, and it seemed unlikely such a metric had any meaning in a country where nearly half the population has been forced from its homes by war and entire provinces lie outside government control, either ruled by armed rebels or sharply contested among competing armed groups. Millions of Syrians in rebel-controlled areas couldn’t have voted even if they’d wanted to, and millions more weren’t in any position to cast ballots from the squalid refugee camps and irregular settlements of neighboring countries that they now inhabit.
An Assad victory was a foregone conclusion _ Assad faced two politically empty candidates with long histories of loyalty to the Assad family _ and it would be difficult to argue with the British Foreign Office’s assessment of the polling as “a grotesque parody of democracy.”
Still, the exercise was useful to show how support for Assad may be faring in a country where a civil war over his tenure has cost the lives of more than 160,000 people in the past three and a quarter years.
Turnout was very high in relatively peaceful areas loyal to the government, while observers in Damascus said there were fewer voters than expected _ possibly because of the threat of attacks by rebels, who have frequently targeted the capital with car bombs and mortar fire.
Security was extremely tight in Damascus, with more armed security forces on the streets than usual and vehicles receiving more scrutiny because of fears of rebel car bombs, said a resident reached by telephone who asked not to be identified because of security fears.
“They are checking every car. They’ve heard there could be car bombs,” said the resident, who added that even military vehicles were being searched at checkpoints around the city.
But the potential for violence didn’t stop boisterous regime supporters from taking to the streets in processions of vehicles smothered in Assad posters and flying Syrian flags, the resident said. The processions crawled along as participants sang pro-Assad songs and danced in the hot sun.
“In many places, there are crowds dancing and singing for Bashar,” the resident said.
Polling stations were set up in schools, government offices and even in prefabricated roadside huts, and long, orderly lines of people waited to cast ballots.
Voters were required to show their identity cards, the information from which was recorded by election officials. They’d then be given ballots embossed with the names and pictures of Assad and his two nominal challengers, Hassan Nouri, a U.S.-educated businessman and former junior Cabinet minister, and Maher Hajjar, a member of Parliament.
Voters were instructed to take their ballots to private rooms, mark their choice, slip their ballots into envelopes and then return to the main rooms of the polling stations to deposit their envelopes in ballot boxes. Their fingers were then marked with indelible ink to prevent them from voting more than once.
But in an effort to publicly demonstrate their fealty to the family that has ruled Syria with an iron hand for four decades, many marked their choice of Assad in the main rooms in full view of election officials and others waiting to cast their ballots.
“Most of the people are doing it straight in the open,” said the resident, who visited numerous polling stations around the city.
The voting proceeded amid the intermittent sounds of gunfire and the occasional roar of military jets as rebels holding a string of Damascus suburbs fired at surrounding regime forces, the resident said.
“There is some shelling but not much,” said the resident. “We were waiting for worse.”
The reason, according to rebel groups, was a decision by the largest militant groups _ the moderate Free Syrian Army and the Islamist coalition the Islamic Front _ not to conduct attacks on polling stations that might kill or maim civilians, recognizing that many Syrians were being coerced into participating.
There would be not be attacks, the Islamic Front said in a statement, “because we decided not to involve civilians in the conflict” and have requested that other groups do the same.
The “other groups” was a reference to the al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, which did not openly agree to avoid targeting voters because such a statement would seem hypocritical in light of the group’s profound aversion to even legitimate democracy. Members of other groups, however, said Nusra had agreed to let the balloting happen without violence.
“We spoke with our brothers in Nusra and convinced them that such actions would be forbidden under Islam and hurt the image of the mujahedeen,” said Abu Farouk al Shami, a spokesman for Suqour al Sham, a major member of the Islamic Front and a close Nusra ally. “But military operations against the Assad mercenaries will be normal.”
In Lebanon, thousands of refugees flooded the Maasna border crossing in a desperate attempt to cross back into Syria to vote, driven by persistent rumors that the Syrian government would prosecute anyone who failed to cast a ballot. But the refugees made the move knowing that the Lebanese government had warned that anyone who crossed the border to vote would not be allowed back into Lebanon.
Lebanese merchants lined the highway with portable generators and copy machines so that Syrians could make copies of their papers in case authorities attempted to strip them of their refugee status when they returned to Lebanon.
Lea Gharaib, a 20-year-old woman from the Damascus countryside, said her family moved to Lebanon a year ago but that they had never claimed refugee status.
“We just live in Zahle but not as refugees,” she said, referring to a nearby Lebanese town. “We tried to vote at the embassy last week, but there was too much traffic, plus Beirut is far from Zahle, it’s faster to just go to Syria like this.”
Her mother interrupted to declare, “We’re voting because we love Bashar. He’s a good man and a good president.”
“Yeah, sure,” Lea added, unenthusiastically.
A Lebanese man in his 50s from neighboring Majdel Anjar, who asked to be called Abu Muhammed, was running one of the photocopying stations, charging the equivalent of $2 per person for a copy of an ID. He was thrilled at the possibility that many of his customers might not return. Lebanon, with a population of just 4 million, has become refuge for a million Syrians.
“It’s better this way.” he said, referring to the government’s warning that Syrians voting would not be allowed back into Lebanon. “There’s no work in Lebanon, the Syrians are taking all the jobs and then they take money from the U.N. as well.”
“They’re all scared,” said another Lebanese man, Muhammed Saleh, pointing to the Syrians lining up to have their documents photocopied. “They’re scared that if they don’t vote the Syrian government will punish them. And if they go to Syria, they’re scared the U.N. will stop the aid. They’re scared from both sides.”
McClatchy special correspondent Prothero reported from Istanbul, Landay from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Susannah George contributed from Maasna, Lebanon.