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Syrians vote for new parliament amid war, economic turmoil

Elections postponed twice due to pandemic, with any real opposition absent, and the ruling Baath party expected to retain its hegemony

A Syrian policeman walks past ballot boxes, ahead of handing them over to the police to deliver them to polling stations on the eve of the parliamentary elections, in the Syrian city of Aleppo on July 18, 2020 (AFP)
A Syrian policeman walks past ballot boxes, ahead of handing them over to the police to deliver them to polling stations on the eve of the parliamentary elections, in the Syrian city of Aleppo on July 18, 2020 (AFP)

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrians go to the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament as the Damascus government grapples with international sanctions and a crumbling economy after retaking large parts of the war-torn country.

More than 7,400 polling stations were set to open at 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT) in government-held parts of Syria, including for the first time in former opposition strongholds.

President Bashar Assad’s Baath party and its allies are expected to take most of parliament’s 250 seats in the third such polls to be held since the war started nine years ago.

On the eve of the polls, one person was killed and another wounded in two blasts in Damascus, state news agency SANA said.

A Syrian worker disinfects the premises in a building which will be used as a polling station in the northern city of Aleppo, on July 18, 2020, a day ahead of parliamentary elections (AFP)

Several lists were allowed to run across the country but any real opposition is absent, and the ruling Baath party is expected to retain its hegemony.

Portraits of the contenders have been displayed across the capital for weeks, with the 1,658 candidates including several prominent businessmen.

The elections, twice postponed from April due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, come at a time when most Syrians are worried about the soaring cost of living.

Many candidates are running on programs pledging to tackle inflation and improve infrastructure ravaged by the conflict.

“Lawmakers are going to have to make exceptional efforts to improve services,” said Umaya, a 31-year-old woman who works in a dentist’s practice.

This photo from the official Facebook page of the Syrian Presidency shows Syrian President Bashar Assad casting his ballot in the parliamentary elections, as his wife Asma, left, stands next to him, in Damascus, Syria, April 13, 2016. (Syrian Presidency via AP, file)

Millions of Syrians living abroad, after fleeing a war that has killed more than 380,000 people, are not eligible to vote.

But for the first time, voting will take place in territory retaken by the government, including in the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus and in the south of Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

After a string of military victories backed by key ally Russia, the government is back in control of around 70 percent of the country, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

In the last polls in 2016, turnout stood at 57%.

‘Unprecedented hunger crisis’

This year’s vote comes as Damascus struggles to redress an economy battered by nine years of war, Western sanctions and the fallout of a financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

Food prices in Syria have shot up by more than 200% in the past year and now stand at 20 times their pre-war levels, the World Food Programme says.

Illustrative: Displaced Syrians ride in the back of a truck towards the Deir al-Ballut checkpoint to return to their villages in Afrin’s countryside in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, along the border with Turkey, on April 22, 2020. (Rami al SAYED / AFP)

In a country where more than 80 percent of people already live in poverty, the UN food agency has warned that Syrians are now facing an “unprecedented hunger crisis.”

The elections also come as Assad marked a second decade in power this month, and weeks after the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria including on the president’s wife.

The next presidential polls are expected in 2021, and candidates will need the written approval of at least 35 members of parliament.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem last month said Assad would remain in power “as long as the Syrian want him to stay.”

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