Syria geared up Monday for an election expected to keep Bashar al-Assad as president but derided as a “farce” and only staged in regime-held parts of the war-ravaged country.
Officially, 15 million people are eligible to vote in a country bled dry by the three-year conflict that flared from a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests calling for democratic reforms.
A “security plan” has reportedly been put in place in Syrian cities since Sunday, aimed at preventing possible attacks against voters and polling stations, with Tuesday’s election being held only in areas under the regime’s control.
“Military and security forces are on maximum alert to ensure the security of Syrians who wish to vote,” said Al-Watan, a pro-regime newspaper.
More than 9,000 polling stations have been “secured” across the country, the daily said.
Rumors have swirled that polling places in Damascus would be targeted by insurgents positioned in the nearby countryside.
Exiled opposition leader Ahmad Jarba on Monday urged Syrians to stay at home and warned that the regime was preparing attacks on polling stations that would be blamed on rebels.
“We appeal for all Syrians to stay at home,” Jarba said in a speech broadcast by Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya.
“The Syrian regime … is preparing … a series of attacks and bombings on the so-called polling stations,” he charged.
On Monday, a bomb-laden truck killed at least 10 people when it exploded in Haraqi, a regime-held village in Homs province populated mainly by members of Assad’s Alawite community, state television reported.
In the divided northern city of Aleppo, at least 50 people, including nine children, were killed at the weekend in rebel mortar and rocket fire targeting regime-controlled zones, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
And in Damascus, the Qassaa and Mazzeh district as well as a security building in Bab Moussala came under rebel mortar fire, according to the British-based monitoring group.
The Baath party, which has ruled Syria with an iron fist for half a century, as well as other parties and religious officials tolerated by the regime have called on voters to choose Assad, who is widely expected to sweep the poll.
Rebels have urged Syrians to boycott the vote, which excludes any anti-regime candidates from running.
Assad faces two virtually unknown candidates in the vote, which is Syria’s first election in 50 years, with the president and his father Hafez renewing their mandates in successive referendums.
Posters glorifying Bashar al-Assad have gone up in Damascus, while some portraits showed his competitors Maher al-Hajjar and Hassan al-Nuri.
Rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow and their Western and Arab backers have watched powerless as the preparations drew to a close, after the army secured a series of military advances on the ground, especially around Homs and Damascus.
Opposition activists have branded the vote a “blood election” that is being held amid a war that is estimated to have killed 162,000 people.
A civil servant in Damascus told AFP that he would vote.
“I have to, because there is a voting station in the building where I work. I can’t escape,” he said.
Syria saw a peaceful, Arab Spring-inspired revolt break out in March 2011, demanding political change.
But the movement quickly transformed into a full-blown insurgency, after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent, and has since evolved into a complex, multi-front war drawing in thousands of foreign jihadists.
The election is aimed at reinforcing Assad’s position in the war, as the army backed by Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement battle divided rebels who are also fighting the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Observers from countries allied to the regime — North Korea, Brazil, Russia and Iran — have arrived in Damascus to monitor the vote, state media reported.
The vote has been slammed as a “farce” by the opposition and a “parody of democracy” by the United States.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon held protests on Sunday to denounce the election, four days after tens of thousands of other Syrians living in the country took part in early voting at their embassy in Beirut.
In Jordan, where another 600,000 Syrians have taken refuge, an Arab think-tank announced the results of a study which found that 78 percent of Syrian refugees in the region believe Tuesday’s election will be “illegitimate.”
Polling stations will be open for 12 hours from 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on Tuesday.