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* Syrian election ends amid reportedly low turnout

AFP, April 23, 2007

by Rana Moussawi

DAMASCUS, April 23, 2007 (AFP) - Voting for Syria's parliament ended on Monday with reportedly low turnout and a widespread lack of enthusiasm for the two-day polls which opposition activists had urged supporters to boycott.

Nearly 12 million Syrians were eligible to vote, according to the official SANA news agency, which also reported that 2,500 candidates stood for the 250 seats in the assembly. Results were expected to be announced on Tuesday.

The vote took place "in total freedom and transparency," SANA said on Monday, without giving turnout figures for the first day's vote on Sunday.

"Turnout is low but higher than yesterday," an official at a downtown Damascus polling station told AFP shortly before polls closed, walls behind him featuring posters of President Bashar al-Assad with his father and predecessor Hafez.

"Citizens, elections are a national democratic celebration. Vote for whoever you think is the most competent," read a nearby interior ministry sign.

While turnout on Monday appeared low at several other polling stations visited by AFP in the capital, an AFP photographer in Damascus' poorer southern districts reported "relatively high turnout" with people queueing to vote.

Residents appeared split on whether the election, totally lacking in suspense for most people, would bring any change.

Of the 250 seats, 167 are reserved for the ruling National Progressive Front (NPF) coalition, led by Assad's Baath party. The party itself is guaranteed 131 seats, or 52 percent of the total.

The other 83 seats are allocated to so-called independent candidates "close to the authorities," according to lawyer Hassan Abdel-Azim, spokesman for six banned, but largely tolerated, parties operating under the umbrella National Democratic Rally (NDR).

Abdel-Azim said it was "pointless to take part in an election whose results are known in advance... The NPF will come out the winner," as it has done in all organised elections since 1973.

Even the official Tishrin daily said last week that Syrians "have lost their enthusiasm for the parliamentary elections."

In Syria's second city of Aleppo, in the north, "candidates were disappointed by the low turnout," the independent Al-Watan daily reported on Monday.

Interior Minister Bassam Abdel-Majid, in a statement on state television, had urged Syrians to turn out in force: "Your participation is a contribution to consolidating democracy and activating the role of parliament in drawing up decisions," he said.  In a swipe at Washington, which had said Syria's election was unlikely to be free and fair, an official Syrian newspaper said Damascus had never needed "democratic" advice from abroad.

Late in 2005, opposition parties which are tolerated but have no legal status launched an appeal for "democratic change" in Syria, but the plea failed to bring positive action.

The following May, the authorities jailed 10 opposition figures who had signed a statement seeking reform in the country's relations with Lebanon, where Syria was the power-broker for nearly three decades.

Among other demands, the opposition wants a modern law authorising the creation of parties other than the Baath and its allies, and abrogation of the state of emergency which has been in force since 1963.

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