Voting begins in war-torn Syria; Bashar al-Assad expected to win

Willie Grace | 6/3/2014, 2:26 p.m. | Updated on 6/3/2014, 2:26 p.m.
Polls for the Syrian presidential election opened Tuesday against the backdrop of a bloody and protracted civil war. The outcome ...

Polls for the Syrian presidential election opened Tuesday against the backdrop of a bloody and protracted civil war.

The outcome is hardly in doubt: President Bashar al-Assad is almost guaranteed to emerge victorious in a vote that opposition groups and many Western countries say has been be rigged from the start.

Syria isn't renowned for holding free and fair elections.

When al-Assad came to power 14 years ago, he ran unopposed, securing more than 99% of votes, according to state media. Seven years later, he won again with a similarly mountainous share of the vote. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria with an iron fist for 29 years before he died in 2000.

The Syrian regime says the election has to be held under the new constitution and shows the country is moving forward.

But some analysts say the purpose of this week's vote, which U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Syrian government not to hold, is to send a message to al-Assad's opponents, both in Syria and abroad.

'A coronation'

"It's a coronation of Assad, it's a celebration of his ability to survive the violent storm and basically go on the offensive," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

The election takes place amid a grinding three-year conflict that has killed around 150,000 people, displaced about 6.5 million within Syria and prompted almost 3 million to flee outside its borders.

Voting will take place only in areas controlled by the regime. State television showed al-Assad and his wife, Asma, casting their votes at a school in Maliki, a neighborhood of Damascus.

Rebels hold significant parts of the north and east of the country. There are concerns that violence could disrupt the election process, with voters wary of the threat of car bombs and shelling at polling stations within range of rebel mortars.

The British Foreign Office has said the vote "will be a grotesque parody of democracy." The U.S. State Department says the Assad regime has taken steps "to make it difficult if not impossible to have a fair and free election in Syria."

The regime has said election monitors from the United States, the European Union or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe won't be present, but observers from some other countries will be.

War continues amid election

Warplanes bombed anti-government neighborhoods Tuesday as Syrians cast their ballots, the opposition-run Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

In the western city of Rastan, warplane shelling killed at least two people, the LCC said. And warplanes dropped at least 20 barrels packed with crude explosive devices over Daraya in the Damascus suburbs, pushing thick columns of smoke into the afternoon sky, social media video showed.

The LCC also said that 28 people, including three children, were killed during voting Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in the once bustling commercial capital of Aleppo, residents dropped mock ballots in a makeshift ballot box "to withdraw the citizenship of President Bashar al-Assad," social media video showed Tuesday. CNN could not immediately confirm the authenticity of the videos.