Damascus: Syrians were called to the polls
on Sunday to vote on a new constitution in the face of opposition
calls for a boycott and deadly violence that Washington said
made the exercise "laughable."
The new text ends the legal basis for the five-decade
stranglehold on power of the ruling Baath party but leaves
huge powers in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition says the changes are cosmetic and that
only Assad`s ouster will suffice after 11 months of repression
by his security forces that human rights groups say have left
more than 7,600 people dead.
On Saturday alone, 98 people were killed, 72 of them
civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
As polling was under way, the Britain-based watchdog
reported new violence around the country that left 16
civilians and 14 security force personnel dead.
In the central city of Homs -- under assault by regime
forces for more than three weeks -- shelling resumed of the
rebel district of Baba Amro, dashing Red Cross hopes of a lull
to allow the evacuation of two wounded Western journalists.
Syrian state television aired live footage from a
number of polling stations around the country and reported
that "large number of voters" had turned out.
"I am voting because this is the outcome of reforms
introduced by the president, and if they succeed, we will have
a democracy, not like in Libya and elsewhere," Balsam Kahila,
32, said after voting in the capital at the finance
ministry where she works.
Asked whether she thought it was right to hold the
referendum in the thick of bloodshed, she said: "I am voting
in spite of the armed gangs," using the term employed by the
regime to refer to rebel fighters and mutinous troops.
At the voting centre, many did not bother to use the
booth, showing to everyone their choice of "yes" to the new
Outside, at the main Seven Fountains Square, large
crowds gathered brandishing Syrian flags as pro-Assad anthems
blurred from loudspeakers.
In the southwestern city of Sweida, in the heartland
of the Druze minority, Maria, in her forties, said she voted
without hesitation in favour of the new constitution, although
she said it was not enough.
"We`re not stupid. We know that the new text does not
meet the aspirations of the people, but voting is a message to
support stability and reject the civil war that threatens our
country," she said.
"In theory, the new constitution ... opens the way to
a multi-party system and to a democratic transition ... The
real political battle now is to force those in power to
respect the text," said Khaled, a 37-year-old lawyer.
In Homs, no voting appeared to be taking place,
activist Hadi Abdullah said after touring parts of the
city where rebels are active.
"There are no people in the streets. Everything is
shut, and there is not a single polling station," he said.
Foreign journalists have very limited freedom of
movement in Syria as a result of stringent restrictions
imposed by the authorities.
Assad unveiled the proposed new national charter
earlier this month, in the latest step in what he says is a
cautious process of reform.
Damascus`s allies, Beijing and Moscow, which have
blocked action against the regime at the UN Security Council,
have expressed support for the process. (AFP)