Middle East

Syrians vote for new parliament amid boycott calls

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says it appears turnout for the election was "pretty scant"

The Syrian authorities have held parliamentary elections amid continuing violence across much of the country.

Activists said troops had killed three people in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour. There was also reportedly fighting in Hama and Idlib provinces.

The elections, promised last year by President Bashar al-Assad, were the first in 40 years not to guarantee a majority for the ruling Baath Party.

Opposition groups dismissed them as a sham, calling for a boycott.

They said the government was continuing its crackdown on dissent despite agreeing to a peace plan negotiated by the UN envoy, Kofi Annan.

UN observers have reported widespread violations of a ceasefire that began on 12 April, while soldiers and tanks remain in towns and cities.

Thousands are still being detained and peaceful protests continue to be dispersed with gunfire, in contravention of Mr Annan's initiative.

'Historic stage'

More than 12,000 polling stations across Syria closed at 22:00 (19:00 GMT), the state-run media reported.

The Sana news agency said there was a "wide popular participation" in the poll, without giving any numbers.

Elections for the 250-seat People's Assembly were due last year, but they were delayed after President Assad unveiled a series of purported reforms, including a new constitution that was approved in a referendum in February.

The new constitution dropped an article giving the Baath Party unique status as the "leader of the state and society" in Syria. It also allowed new parties to contest elections, albeit those not based on religious, tribal, regional, denominational or professional affiliation, nor those based outside the country.

Nine new parties have been created and seven reportedly had candidates standing on Monday. Most are known to be linked to the old political establishment.

A total of 7,195 candidates registered to contest the 250 seats, at least half of which are reserved under the constitution for "representatives of workers and peasants", whose unions are controlled by the Baath Party.

Before the polls, the chairman of the Higher Elections Committee, Khalaf al-Izzawi, insisted that they would be "free, fair and democratic".

On Monday, Mr Izzawi said voting was proceeding normally and quietly.

He told Sana that there had been some minor complaints in the capital, Damascus, but none recorded in polling stations elsewhere.

Prime Minister Adel Safar said the elections "marked an important and historic stage in Syria which is moving forward with the announced comprehensive reform program despite all conspiracies to hinder the development process", Sana added.

Independent politician Qadri Jamil told the Reuters news agency that he was running "because we believe we can turn the election into a starting point of a political process, and to decrease the level of violence so as to reach dialogue".

'Regime masquerade'

Most of the candidates whose faces adorned campaign posters were unknown, reports the BBC's Jonathan Head in neighbouring Turkey.

In any case, our correspondent says, many people will be too preoccupied with the prospect of an economy and state near collapse to care much about an election that the US has dismissed as "ridiculous".

Opposition groups inside and outside Syria called for a boycott.

In areas like Homs and Idlib, where entire districts have been destroyed by the government's scorched-earth campaign, it was hard to imagine voting taking place at all, our correspondent adds.

Bashar al-Haraki, a member of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, said the elections were a "farce which can be added to the regime's masquerade".

Louay Hussein, an activist who heads the Movement for Building a State, said the polls would not shift the balance of power.

"It does not matter who votes. It is a forged election - against the will of Syrians with no popular participation," he told Reuters. "The Syrian parliament has no authority over a single intelligence officer. It has no power in the country at all."

As people voted, gunfire and explosions were reported in the central city of Hama as troops fought armed rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Three dissidents were also killed in a dawn raid by security forces, it said.

Another two people died in al-Tal, a mountain town near Damascus, according to the Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites