DAMASCUS — President Bashar al-Assad took the oath of office for a fourth term in war-ravaged Syria Saturday, after taking 95 percent of the vote in a controversial election dismissed abroad.
Assad was sworn in on the constitution and the Koran in the presence of more than 600 guests, including ministers, businessmen, academics and journalists, organizers said.
The elections “have proven the strength of popular legitimacy that the people have conferred to the state,” 55-year-old Assad said, in his inauguration speech.
They “have discredited the declarations of Western officials on the legitimacy of the state, the constitution and the homeland,” he added.
In power since 2000, Assad’s re-election in a landslide was never in doubt. His new term starts with the country still devastated by 10 years of war and sliding deeper into a worsening economic crisis.
The UN estimates that more than 80% of Syrians live under the poverty line. The Syrian currency is in a free fall and basic services and resources have become scarce or are offered at exorbitant parallel market prices. Fighting has largely subsided, but parts of Syria remain out of government-control and foreign troops and militias are deployed in different parts of the country.
Nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population is either displaced or living in neighboring countries or Europe as refugees. The war has left nearly half a million killed, tens of thousands missing and devastated the infrastructure.
The conflict that began in 2011 started after the government cracked down on peaceful protests, turning the opposition against the decades-long rule of the Assad family into an armed rebellion.
Assad, targeted by widening sanctions and isolated by the West, is supported by Iran and Russia, who sent in troops and assistance that have propped him up throughout the war.
European and US governments blame Assad and his aides for most of the war’s atrocities. Assad calls his armed opposition terrorists while UN-led talks to end the conflict have lacked any progress.
Assad took over in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who seized power in 1970 in a bloodless military coup.
US and European officials have questioned the legitimacy of the election, saying it violated UN resolutions in place to resolve the conflict, lacks any international monitoring and is unrepresentative of all Syrians.
Assad garnered 95.1% of the vote in the election, in which officials said turnout was 78.6% of some 18 million registered voters. There were no independent monitors of the one-day vote. Competition was symbolic, with two candidates running against Assad.
On the eve of the May 26 election, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy said the poll was “neither free nor fair,” and Syria’s fragmented opposition has called it a “farce.”
With his campaign slogan, “Hope through work,” Assad cast himself as the sole architect of a reconstruction phase for the troubled country.