Beirut: Syria’s authoritarian regime held a referendum on a new constitution Sunday, a gesture by embattled President Bashar Assad to placate those seeking his ouster. But the opposition deemed it an empty gesture and the West immediately dismissed the vote as a “sham.”
Even as some cast ballots for what the government has tried to portray as reform, the military kept up shelling of the opposition stronghold of Homs, which has been under attack for more than three weeks after rebels took control of some neighbourhoods there. Activists and residents report that hundreds have been killed in Homs in the past few weeks, including two Western journalists.
Activist groups said at least 29 people were killed on Sunday, mostly in Homs. At least 89 were reported killed on Saturday alone, one day before the referendum. Activists estimate close to 7,500 people have been killed in the 11 months since the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on dissent began.
“The referendum in Syria is nothing more than a farce,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. “Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis. Assad must finally end the violence and clear the way for a political transition.”
The two main umbrella opposition groups, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, have called for a boycott. Other groups have called for a general strike.
“I am boycotting the vote,” Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso said over phone. He added that previous “reforms” have made little difference. Mr. Assad’s government revoked the country’s official state of emergency in April, but the crackdown on dissent has only intensified.
The referendum on the new constitution allows at least in theory for opening the country’s political system. It would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Baath party since it took power after a coup in 1963. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, took power in another coup in 1970.
Such change was unthinkable a year ago. It also imposes limit of two seven-year terms on the President. But since Mr. Assad’s security forces have killed thousands in their effort to end the uprising, most opposition groups say they’ll accept nothing short of his ouster.
In the capital Damascus, a regime stronghold where many in the business class and religious minorities support Mr. Assad, the Information Ministry took foreign reporters to visit polling stations. Many said they were eager to vote.
“This is a good constitution. It calls for party pluralism and the President can only hold the post for two terms. These did not exist in the past,” said civil servant Mohammed Diab, 40, who waited with four others to vote in the posh Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood.
Jaafar Naami, 28, who works for a private insurance company, said- “I am here to say yes for the new constitution. This is not the time to say no. People should unite.”
The state news agency SANA said Mr. Assad and his wife, Asma, voted at the capital’s state broadcasting headquarters.
Fewer voters turned out in the areas of Rukneddine and Barzeh, where anti-government protesters have recently demonstrated.
In Barzeh, about 20 per cent of shops were closed, apparently in compliance with the calls for a strike.