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July 19, 2020

War-torn Syria votes for new parliament amid economic turmoil, int'l sanctions


Sun, Jul 19, 2020
Without any real opposition, Syria President Bashar al-Assad's Baath party and its allies are expected to take most of parliament's 250 seats. AFP/Louai Beshara

DAMASCUS: Syrians voted Sunday to elect a new parliament as the Damascus government grapples with international sanctions and a crumbling economy after retaking large parts of the war-torn country.

More than 7,400 polling stations opened across government-held parts of Syria — including, for the first time, in former opposition strongholds — in the third such polls since the war started nine years ago.

Several lists were allowed to run across the country but without any real opposition, President Bashar al-Assad's Baath party and its allies are expected to take most of parliament's 250 seats.

The president and his wife Asma cast their votes in the capital, the presidency said, posting photos of the smartly dressed couple wearing white face masks as part of measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Volunteers stood outside polling stations carrying the programmes and pictures of their favourite candidates, and tried to woo passersby to come in and vote.

Among the first to cast his ballot in Damascus was 50-year-old government employee, Khaled al-Shaleh.

"My demands today are for the parliament to realise what laws need changing in the interest of the citizen," he said.

"Our demands before, during and after the war have always been to do with the economy."

Hanan Sukriye, 29, said she was voting for the first time in her life."If we all come together to choose worthy candidates, there will be an impact," said the finance ministry employee.

Social distancing

The elections were twice postponed from April due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has officially infected 496 people and killed 25 in government-held areas.

Polling station staff wearing masks took the temperature of people coming though the door and made sure they sanitised their hands.

"The polls are happening this year in exceptional health circumstances so we've taken suitable measures," said Riyad Teriyaqi, as he checked that voters in line were observing suitable distancing.

Portraits of the contenders have been displayed across the capital for weeks, with the 1,658 candidates including several prominent businessmen.

Many candidates are running on programmes pledging to tackle sharp inflation and improve infrastructure ravaged by the conflict.

"Lawmakers are going to have to make exceptional efforts to improve services," said Umaya, a 31-year-old woman who works in a dentist's practice.

Polls are due to close at 1630 GMT but voting could be extended by an extra five hours.

On the eve of the election, one person was killed and another wounded in a blast in Damascus, state news agency SANA said. The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear.

Millions of Syrians living abroad, after fleeing a war that has killed more than 380,000 people, are not eligible to vote.

But for the first time, voting will take place in territory retaken by the government, including in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus and in the south of Idlib province in the country's northwest.

After a string of military victories backed by key ally Russia, the government is back in control of around 70% of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor says.

'Unprecedented hunger crisis'

In the last polls in 2016, turnout stood at 57%.

This year's vote comes as Damascus struggles to redress an economy battered by nine years of war, Western sanctions and the fallout of a financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.

Food prices in Syria have shot up by more than 200% in the past year and now stand at 20 times their pre-war levels, the World Food Programme says.

In a country where more than 80% of people already live in poverty, the UN food agency has warned Syrians are now facing an "unprecedented hunger crisis".

Assad marked a second decade in power this month, weeks after the United States imposed new economic sanctions including on the president's wife.

The next presidential polls are expected in 2021, and candidates will need the written approval of at least 35 members of parliament.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem last month said Assad would remain in power "as long as the Syrian want him to stay".