The online news portal of TV5
DAMASCUS - Syrians were voting on Monday in the country's first "multiparty" parliamentary election in five decades, being held against a backdrop of violence and dismissed as a sham by the opposition.
Young and old cast their ballots in neighborhoods of the capital and various other regions, while in opposition strongholds residents boycotted the vote, instead holding protests and a general strike.
The election was being held despite unrest that has swept the country since March 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad resorted to force in a bid to quash a revolt against his autocratic regime.
The vote, initially scheduled for last September, was postponed to May 7 after Assad announced the launch of a reform process backed by a referendum.
"I think these elections will bring a definitive end to the crisis," said Shahba Karim, 18, after casting her vote in central Damascus.
But others held a different view.
"I voted no in the constitutional referendum but this time I won't cast a ballot because by doing so it would mean I agree with the process which is not the case," said Fady, a 47-year-old media worker.
A total of 7,195 candidates have registered to stand for the 250 seats, state news agency SANA said.
The opposition has dismissed the vote as a sham and a ploy by the government to buy time and to dupe the international community into believing the regime is serious about reforms.
"Whoever drowns Syria in blood, displaces ... Syrians and shoots at the Syrian people does not have the legitimacy to draw up a constitution, an electoral law, or to run elections," the Syrian National Council, an exile umbrella opposition organization, said in a statement.
Boycott, general strike
Several towns and villages across the country, including some neighborhoods of Damascus, held demonstrations, boycotted the vote and organized a general strike amid reports of continued violence.
Three people were killed in an ambush by regime forces in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Clashes between soldiers and rebels were also reported in several areas of central Hama province as well as other regions, the Britain-based watchdog added.
"There are no signs of a national election in (northwest) Idlib or the surrounding areas," activist Nureddin al-Abdo told AFP via Skype.
"The regime is trying to delude itself that it still holds power by organizing these fake elections, but it is only capable of ruling with tanks."
Another activist, Shakeeb al-Jabri, tweeted: "Let me put it this way: Syrians were more interested in the French elections (on Sunday) than they are in their own elections".
Activist Musaab al-Hamadee said people were striking in Hama - a city with a bloody history of opposition to the Assads - and that activists were burning tires in the streets.
"Today is the Syrian parliamentary poll and we say to you Bashar al-Assad that there are no people in Qalaat al-Madeeq voting. You've displaced people and killed women and children. We are on strike," a man filming in Hama said off-camera.
Election posters, mostly of pro-Assad candidates, hung in central Damascus and regions where Assad still retains strong authority but there appeared to be fewer in outlying areas that form the bedrock of the revolt.
State television channels aired footage from polling centers across the country, showing people ticking boxes on ballot papers and slipping them into plastic boxes. Despite heavy media coverage in recent days, there has been little discussion of candidate policies or political leanings.
Only 3 voted during 40 minutes
"I want a normal life and I want a job," she said.
Shops were closed and streets empty in several areas of central Hama, northwest Idlib, Daraa in the south of the country and Damascus itself, according to activists.
State television however reported high turnout in several of the same regions.
In Yabrud village, Damascus province, children led an anti-regime demonstration, waving independence-era flags, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
"If you demand freedom and dignity, does that turn you into an armed terrorist?" read a poster held up by a child.
Another video showed shops closed in Assili market of Damascus, as merchants went on strike to protest the election, activists said.
In one village of Hama province, a shopowners' strike did not go without reprisals by regime forces, activists said.
A video showed an unidentified man in Midaq village blaming paramilitary regime forces for burning down shops after their owners decided to join the strike.
"It does not matter who votes. It is a forged election - against the will of Syrians with no popular participation. The Syrian parliament has no authority over a single intelligence officer. It has no power in the country at all," he said.
Independent politician Qadri Jameel said he was running "because we believe we can turn the election into a starting point of a political process, and to decrease the level of violence so as to reach dialogue."
In the Sunni Muslim town of Madaya, a rural center of the revolt 30 km (20 miles) north of Damascus, there was no sign of an election campaign. In the nearby town of Zabadani, there were a few pictures of one candidate.
More prominent were pictures of young men killed by Assad's forces, plastered on shuttered shops and facades of buildings. "Vote for your candidate to parliament, the martyr Nour Adnan al-Dalati," read one poster, mocking Monday's election.
According to the Observatory, more than 11,100 people have died in violence, mostly civilians, since March last year.
No significant change expected
Monday's election marked the first time Syria has held a multiparty vote since the adoption in February by referendum of a new constitution that ended the five-decade stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party.
Nine parties have been created, and seven have candidates vying for a parliamentary seat.
Pro-regime parties led by the Baath are represented under a coalition called the National Progressive Front.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmud said at the weekend that by voting, Syrians would be casting a ballot against "terrorism."
Political analysts, however, believe the election will not lead to significant change in Syria, where a tenuous United Nations-backed ceasefire that came into effect April 12 has failed to take hold.
More than 600 people have died since the truce began, according to the Observatory.
UN observers deployed in the country to monitor the truce have reported violations by both regime and rebel forces.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Monday that his government was "facilitating" the work of the observers, state news agency SANA reported.
There are currently some 50 observers based in various cities affected by the violence and their number is to increase to 300 in the coming weeks.
The 12,000 polling stations are due to close at 10:00 p.m. (19H00 GMT). (Additional Reuters reports by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Erika Solomon in Beirut)