Assad overwhelmingly wins another term of office in pseudo-referendum
According to official results, 95.86 per cent of Syria’s 12 million voters turned out to cast their ballot. Outgoing President Assad got 97.62 per cent of the vote, improving on the 97.29 per cent he received in the 2000 election.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – President Bashar al-Assad did better than in 2000. Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majid announced that he won the backing of more than 97.62 per cent of the vote in Sunday's referendum, up from 97.29 per cent in the last election. On both occasions voters were asked to confirm the nominee approved by People's Council of Syria, the country’s parliament, which, under Syrian law, must be controlled by the Ba’ath Party.

In its announcement the Interior Ministry reported that 95.86 per cent of Syria’s 11.2 million eligible voters cast their ballot. Only 19,663 or 1.71 per cent voted against confirming the outgoing president for the next seven years.

Since opposition parties, which are illegal but tolerated, had called for a boycott, it might seem that they represent just over 4 per cent of the electorate. But this must be seen against the fact that, in the last two months, six government critics and human rights campaigners have been convicted and sentenced to prison terms of up to 12 years in prison.

By contrast, even though outcome was a foregone conclusion, the high turnout is a significant factor. By comparison, in the recent parliamentary elections, the turnout was 56 percent according to official sources, only 10-15 per cent according to diplomatic sources.

And Western journalists noted that during the presidential referendum in many polling stations voters had to mark their ballot in front of election officials (see photo).

The British-educated ophthalmologist became president shortly after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000.

Many Syrians were hopeful when the young leader first came to power, leading a campaign to modernise the country which had been under a state of emergency since 1963. Instead, hopes died in the summer of 2001 when ten opponents to the regime were arrested.

Sunday’s referendum was meant to show the country solidly behind its leader at a time when the regime is facing tough challenges.

The main one comes from the possible creation of an international tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Currently, the United Nations is conducting a probe into the affair and has officially reached the top brass in Syria’s intelligence services and might touch the Assad family itself.

In fact, many in the region are convinced that such a high-profile murder could not have happened without the Syrian president’s green light.

This issue is also a huge obstacle stopping attempts by the West to end Syria’s isolation.