Syria’s President Bashar Assad won a controversial election held in regime-controlled territory with a sweeping 88.7 percent of the vote, parliament speaker Mohammad al-Lahham announced late on Wednesday.
The other two candidates won 4.3 percent and 3.2 percent of the votes respectively in the poll dismissed as a “farce” by the main opposition and the West.
Later Wednesday, celebratory shots fired by Assad supporterskilled at least three people in Damascus as his election victory was announced late on Wednesday, a monitoring group said.
“At least three people were killed and dozens more wounded as a result of celebratory gunfire shot by Assad supporters,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The election was boycotted by the opposition, and ignored and even ridiculed in rebel-held areas where fighting continues. US Secretary of State John Kerry was among those in the West who denounced the balloting, calling it “a great big zero.”
While the balloting and much of the pro-Assad spectacle seen on the streets of Damascus was stage-managed, even the president’s staunchest enemies concede that the man who has led Syria since 2000 retains substantial backing.
“If only minorities were loyal to Assad, they (rebels) would have taken the country,” said Wida Saleh, a 35-year-old lawyer and Assad supporter who reluctantly identified herself as a Sunni Muslim.
“But because the majority (Sunnis) are standing behind him, they have kept Syria standing,” she said at a voting booth set up in Damascus’ ornate, century-old Hijaz train station.
Saleh’s comments were echoed by others interviewed by The Associated Press in a Sunni-dominated, middle-class neighborhood of central Damascus, as well as by Syrians across the political spectrum — including some of the tens of thousands who have fled their country for neighboring Lebanon. The Damascus interviews were conducted without the presence of government representatives.
It is difficult to ascertain the popularity or discontent with Assad inside Syria. The country has a pervasive security apparatus in place that punishes people for speaking out against the ruling establishment.
Many who supported and respected him for modernizing what had long been a drab capital have turned against him because of the violence his government has inflicted on those who oppose him, including the relentless shelling of rural, opposition-held areas around Damascus that persisted on election day.
Assad’s supporters offered insights into why they still back him. These include fatigue over the conflict, mistrust among many toward a disorganized opposition, and the growing power of Islamic extremists in the rebel ranks.
Some said they support the government because it provided many free services, such as education and health care, and heavily subsidized others. Before the uprising, Syria was often touted as one of the safest countries in the world.
Syria once prided itself on being a tolerant and open society that fully embraced its multitude of religious and ethnic groups. But that fabric has been ripped apart by a conflict that has given rise to radicals on both sides of the battle.
After the government brutally cracked down on the peaceful protests that marked the early months of the revolt in 2011, many Syrians eventually took up arms. As the uprising shifted into civil war, foreign fighters and Islamic extremists began to swell the rebel ranks before ultimately becoming a dominant force in the armed opposition.
Those fighting to oust Assad are called “terrorists” by the government, which presents all of them as hard-core jihadists.
In parts of Syria they have taken over, militants from the al-Qaeda breakaway group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have enforced Shariah restrictions, executing opponents in public, banning music and forcing Christians to pay a tax for protection. The militants routinely carry out suicide operations.
That has hardened many Syrians’ view of the conflict, which they now regard as one against foreign Islamic fighters.