, DAMASCUS, June 3- Syrians in government held areas voted Tuesday in a controversial presidential election in which incumbent Bashar al Assad is looking to boost his grip but which the exiled opposition has slammed as a “farce”.
Assad is facing two little known challengers and is expected to win a crushing victory despite the three year old civil war which the United Nations has warned is likely to drag on even longer as a result of the election.
There was no voting in the roughly 60 percent of the country outside the control of Assad’s government, which includes large areas of second city Aleppo.
But polling was held in the heart of third city Homs, in ruins after rebel forces pulled out early last month following a devastating two year siege in a boost for the president whose family has held power in Syria for more than 40 years.
Assad and his British-born wife Asma voted in central Damascus and state television aired footage of them as they cast their ballots, the president wearing a dark blue suit, the first lady a white blouse, a black business skirt and stiletto heels.
The capital is firmly under the government’s control but comes under periodic rebel bombardment from the suburbs, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that several neighbourhoods came under fire on Tuesday.
Billboards glorifying Assad cover the streets of Damascus although inside polling stations photographs of his two challengers — Hassan al Nuri and Maher al Hajjar — had been put up alongside the president’s.
— Voting Assad ‘of course’ —
None of the voters questioned by AFP said they had voted for the challengers.
Nadia Hazim said she would “vote for the president — of course”.
Hind al Homsi, 46, said she had made a small cut in her finger and left a bloody fingerprint on the circle underneath Assad’s name.
“I want to vote in blood for the president. He is the best,” she said.
In the central city of Homs, security forces deployed in strength a day after a truck bomb killed 10 people in the nearby countryside.
“We are voting to show the world that the people are choosing their leader,” said Saleh Ali Mayyassa, a 50 year old civil servant.
The interior ministry said more than 15 million Syrians were eligible to vote, adding to the 200,000 who already cast votes abroad last week.
At least 162,000 people have been killed in Syria since an uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011, and nearly half the population have fled their homes.
Foreign governments allied to Assad — Iran, North Korea and Russia — sent observers to monitor the election, but Western governments have dubbed it a mockery of democracy.
Even as voting was under way in government controlled areas, there was not let-up in the army’s attacks on rebel-held areas, with air strikes hitting the town of Daraya southwest of Damascus, and fighting flaring east of the capital, activists said.
— Peace talks distant prospect —
The United Nations has warned that the election will only complicate efforts to relaunch peace talks after two rounds of abortive negotiations in Switzerland earlier this year.
The exiled opposition has made Assad’s departure from power a precondition for any negotiated settlement and his re-election for a new seven year term is likely to scupper any hope of getting them back to the negotiating table any time soon.
“Dictators are not elected, they hold power by force and fear — the only motivations that Syrians have to show up for this charade,” opposition chief Ahmed Jarba wrote in the Washington Post.
But Waddah Abed Rabbo, chief editor of pro-Assad newspaper Al Watan, argued that the vote could facilitate a resumption of talks.
“In Geneva, the opposition made its rejection of Assad running in the presidential election a priority at the talks. Assad was a red line that blocked everything,” Abed Rabbo said.
“Now that he will be voted back in by a majority, there will be no objection by the authorities to discuss other issues.”
Noah Bonsey of Brussel based think tank the International Crisis Group said the election was part of a broader effort by the Assad government to portray its eventual victory as inevitable but that it was likely only to prolong an increasingly devastating war.
“The regime can only gain ground after reducing it to rubble, and can only hold it in so far as it remains empty of its original inhabitants,” Bonsey said.
“This was the regime’s approach before the election and it remains so after it. It leads to continued war, not victory.”