On 3 June, Syrians will go to the polls to vote in presidential elections that are expected to see Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad clinch yet another term.
With two seven-year terms already under his belt, the strongman, who has managed to remain in power in despite a three-year war with rebel groups, is sure to win a third victory in the widely criticised elections.
With media, state, and security apparatuses working for Al-Assad's win, the elections are viewed by many as sham, tainted with undemocratic electoral procedures and continued human rights violations.
“The state is clearly biased towards Al-Assad,” says Syrian journalist Bassel Oudat, who argues that state institutions have thrown their weight and resources indiscriminately behind the ruler in lieu of his two opponents: former minister Hassan Al-Nouri and parliamentarian Maher Hajjar.
State ministries, the media, and national institutions have channeled their means and resources towards Al-Assad’s candidacy, while the media largely ignores the other two candidates.
Grassroots organisations, professional associations and trade unions have also campaigned for Al-Assad in full-force, distributing publications and placing roadside adverts calling for his re-election, and holding gatherings and rallies in his favour.
The doctors, engineers, and sports syndicates have all issued declarations of support for the incumbent president.
For weeks before polls opened, posters showing the president broadcasted slogans of him as the guarantor of Syrian unity and as “the lion of all Arabs.”
The other candidates chose to run under less glorious slogans, such as “Syria is for Palestine,” and “A smart, free economy.”
Elections are being held as Syria's civil war continues to smoulder.
According to a recently-published UN report entitled “Squandering Humanity: Socioeconomic monitoring report on Syria,” the death toll in Syria has risen by 30 percent to 130,000 deaths during the last six months of 2013. An estimated 520,000 Syrians -- almost three percent of the population -- have been maimed, wounded or killed in the conflict, the report states.
The ongoing conflict has also battered Syria's economy. By the end of 2013, economic loss from the conflict totalled $143.8 billion, which is equivalent to 276 percent of the country’s real GDP of 2010, the report adds.
Some international campaigns have issued a clarion call on the illegitimacy of the elections.
“How can we hold elections and accept Al-Assad as a main candidate after he destroyed more than 70 percent of Syria, killed hundreds of thousands of people, detained hundreds and displaced millions?” said Susan Ahmad, one of the organisers of Blood Elections, a volunteer-driven campaign that aims to expose the illegitimacy of the upcoming elections.
Ahmad argues that an Al-Assad victory will allow the president to continue his record of human rights abuses, which includes shelling civilian houses and using chemical gas on civilians.
Adding another shade to the alleged illegitimacy of the elections is the question of who will be allowed to vote.
AFP reported that of the estimated three million Syrians living abroad, only 200,000 were entitled to vote last Wednesday, in 39 embassies abroad.
Within government-controlled areas in Syria, citizens will be forced to vote, and the choice of boycotting the elections will not be tolerated. The regime will require employees to be at their offices on election day, and all teachers to be in ballot centres, Ahmad said -- all a means to make sure people cast their vote.
Because of the omnipotence of the security state in some cities, “not voting for Al-Assad is akin to committing suicide,” Oudat says.
Why hold elections?
Syrian columnist Hassan Hassan says that the regime is required to hold elections because Al-Assad’s term is coming to an end.
“But, politically speaking,” he added, “holding the election is a chance for the regime to reaffirm its position as having the upper hand in the conflict.”
This is evident in statements from Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah who in a recent televised address declared that "Syria will triumph and the resistance axis will triumph," including his own Shia resistance movement.
These statements reflect a growing conviction, even among the opposition's backers, that Al-Assad is politically stable and will stay at the helm for now as radical jihadist groups -- termed terrorists by the regime -- hold sway in liberated areas, and are weakening the chances of the opposition to take over, Hassan explains.
Joshua Landis, the director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, also citing the constitutional need to hold elections, adds that for Al-Assad, the elections are “an important display of zaama [leadership], which all Arab Republican leaders choose to go through in order to demonstrate their power, popularity and the fealty of their subjects and followers.”