Damascus (AsiaNews) - Syrians began voting this morning for a new president. In a country torn by three years of a civil war that has affected the whole region, no one doubts that President Bashar al-Assad will win.
In power for the past 14 years, he was chosen in elections that were more like referendums. Today, for the first time in Syria's history, ballots have more than one name. In addition to Assad, 48 and an Alawi, there are two more names: Maher al-Hajjar, a 40-something Sunni businessman; and Hassan al-Nouri, 54, a former Sunni lawmaker.
Still, the election campaign was one-sided. Whilst posters of Assad were everywhere, it was very difficult to find pictures of the other two candidates.
Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said the election was a "historic day" for Syria and that a large turnout would "prove to the entire world that the Syrian people have decided and are determined to make the electoral process a success".
In the capital, people lined up since this morning to vote. Some did not wait to go to the cubicle to mark their ballots in secret and simply placed them directly in the box. One man reportedly used his own blood to mark his vote for Bashar Al-Assad (pictured).
The Interior Ministry said 15.8 million Syrians are eligible to vote both inside and outside Syria, with about 9,600 polling stations set up around the country.
Polling stations opened at 07:00 local time (04:00 GMT) and will close 12 hours later, although officials said voting could be extended for five hours if there is a big turnout.
The problem is that not all Syrians can vote. Rebel groups have called the election "a farce" and pledged to disrupt it.
The Syrian National Council and the non-violent opposition (which is operating underground in the country) have called for a boycott of the vote, which they believe will only strengthen Assad's hold on power.
Syrians abroad were able to vote in recent days in more than 40 Syrian embassies. However, some countries - such as France, Great Britain and Germany - did not allow the poll, backing the opposition's point of view.
Lebanon is home to more than one million Syrian refugees, with some 700,000 in Turkey, 600,000 in Jordan, and 220,000 in Iraq, according to the UN refugee agency.
In Jordan and Lebanon, some refugees were able to vote. In Lebanon, Syrian authorities invited refugees to return home to vote, offering to pay for their trip. However, Lebanon's Ministry of Interior warned that if they returned to Syria, they would lose their refugee status.
For many refugees, a stronger Assad means the end of the war and the possibility of returning home; for others, voting, especially for Assad, means voting for their own executioner.
For analysts, Assad's victory is a foregone conclusion that will boost his legitimacy and make any transition talks more difficult.
In recent months, during talks sponsored by the UN and the Arab League the opposition called for Assad's removal from power as a precondition for the transition. After the vote, talks will become very unlikely, boosting the military option. Meanwhile the war, which has claimed more than 160,000 lives, continues.
In recent months, government forces have made major gains, as the opposition, increasingly divided between Islamists and secularists, tears itself apart.
For the UK-based Observatory for Human Rights, about 2,000 people have died since January in the area of Aleppo from barrel bombings.
Violent fighting also continues in central and southern Syria as well as near Damascus.