Syrians headed to the polls Tuesday to choose a president amid the threat of attacks by rebels and deep uncertainty regarding their war-ravaged nation’s fate.
Voting, held only in government-controlled areas covering about 40% of the country, began at 7 a.m. in about 9,600 locations. President Bashar Assad, facing two relatively unknown opponents, was widely expected to win a new term.
The election brought out a rare display of consensus among the country’s fractured opposition, which dismissed it as an illegal farce. Ahmad Jarba, head of the Syrian National Coalition, described the elections Monday as a "scene of black comedy."
"The time of the Assad family has gone, and their quixotic referendums no longer convince even children."
The government, on the other hand, has doggedly touted the elections as the only political solution to more than three years of warfare, which has left more than 160,000 dead in a conflict characterized by vicious sectarian fighting that threatens to engulf Syria's neighbors.
Syrian official and semi-official television channels beamed footage of knots of voters making their way to election booths. The reports declared that "Syrians paint the future image of their country with their vote" and asserted that citizens were "all one hand for the homeland."
Election crews, according to state television, even made it to hospitals to give patients the chance to vote.
Syrian state news, meanwhile, inundated social media with images of merry citizens lining up to place their ballots in transparent boxes and dipping their fingers in ink (to prevent voter fraud), giving rise to the impression that the day's activities were more of a national celebration than an election.
The state-run media also reported the arrival of large numbers of Syrians from countries that did not allow expatriate voting, such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Even Assad made an appearance with Asma Assad, his wife, at an election center in the upscale Damascus neighborhood of Maliki.
The election was unusual in that more than one candidate was on the ballot. Syrian presidential elections traditionally feature only one candidate, stretching back to before Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, rose to power in 1971.
Assad’s opponents -- Hassan Nouri, a U.S.-educated businessman, and Maher Hajjar, a legislator from Aleppo -- carefully crafted their campaigns to try to differentiate themselves without directing any political mudslinging at the incumbent.
"Whoever gets the highest number of votes is still the loser because the requirements of the coming stage are great and our tragedies are very large, and with time the winning candidate will lose the trust of those who voted for him because he cannot solve their problems," Hajjar wrote on his official Facebook page in response to a question asking who would win.
"We should be aware that the [presidential] chair is no longer a position of authority, but a heavy burden."
The Interior Ministry estimated that 15.8 million people were eligible to vote. Unlike Egypt, whose elections last week were plagued by low participation, the Syrian government has anticipated a high turnout, with plans for voting to continue for as many as 12 hours with the option to extend for five hours.
Some commentators say that much of the election fervor displayed is motivated by fear of retribution from the government.
"There are strong rumors that the Syrian regime will hold accountable all who do not go to vote," said Majd Tadmuri, the nom de guerre for a spokesman of the pro-opposition Riwa media group contacted via Skype. He said travel into government-controlled areas from rebel-held territories was still possible but was limited to employees "fearful of their salaries being cut if they did not participate in the elections."
Despite the largely foregone outcome of the election, analysts said it held symbolic value for the regime.
"The elections are unfree and unfair, but that misses the point. When have elections in the Middle East ever been free or fair? Their lack of credibility and integrity never stopped dictators from having them," said Ramzy Mardini, a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council who is based in Amman, Jordan.
"The imagery of Syrians going to the polls and voting makes for good propaganda with a single and clear message: Assad is here to stay."
Bulos is a special correspondent.