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Syria: Voting Under Way In No-Contest Presidential Poll

It's no contest for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AFP) May 27, 2007 -- There is a presidential vote in Syria today, but only one candidate is on the ballot. Syrians are voting on whether they want President Bashar al-Assad to serve a second seven-year term. Voters can either approve or reject a second term, though reports say al-Assad is expected to easily win the support of most voters.

Muied Wassel, a presidential supporter, was on the streets of Damascus today, dancing in support of al-Assad. He was asked if it wasn’t strange to hold “democratic” elections with just one candidate on the ballot.

"No, no, one candidate, only one." Wassel said. "So we have one president -- and that is Bashar al-Assad."

Of course, not everyone backs the president or the massive countrywide rallies organized by his ruling Ba’ath Party. The rallies effectively celebrate victory before the vote, in a well-orchestrated pageant also popular under al-Assad’s father.

Bravely Speaking Out

Opposition leader Kamal Labwani, for one, would clearly voice his opposition to the elections, if it weren’t for the fact that he is in jail for his political activities.

However, his daughter, Hind Kamal Labwani, is among several Syrian dissidents bravely voicing their opinion -- despite the threat of state retaliation.

"I think that people are dancing in the streets out of fear and some out of ignorance," said Labwani, a 20-year-old economics student. "However, the general feeling is different. It is not logical that one person rules a country and remains leader until he dies and is then followed by his son who rules this country and continues to rule it forever. This mentality is rejected by Syrian society -- but people are scared. They are dancing in the streets purely out of fear."

In the last two months, six government critics and human-rights campaigners were convicted and sentenced to prison terms. Kamal Labwani, who headed a pro-democracy group, was sentenced this month to 12 years in prison on charges of contacting a foreign country and "encouraging attack against Syria."

"It is not logical that one person rules a country and remains leader until he dies and is then followed by his son who rules this country and continues to rule it forever." -- Hind Kamal Labwani, daughter of jailed opposition leader

The sentences were condemned by the United States earlier this month as evidence of the al-Assad regime's suppression of peaceful dissent and democratic reform.

Still, in recent months, al-Assad’s international isolation has appeared to ease.

Visits to the Syrian capital by European and U.S. officials have included one by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And in early May, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held talks with Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim in Egypt.

Some Progress Noted

Syria has reportedly expressed interest in resuming peace talks with Israel.

Alon Liel, a retired Israeli diplomat now at Tel Aviv University, says the Syrian-U.S. contacts coupled with al-Assad’s overtures appear to be affecting opinion inside the Israeli government.

"I think that the big change that we have witnessed in the last few weeks was in the American position," Liel said. "Condoleeza Rice met Walid al-Muallim, Syrian foreign minister, in Sharm el-Sheikh less than two weeks ago. I think it was a good meeting. According to what you see in the press, she was surprised by his moderate views, and I think it triggered a change in the American position, and this might have triggered some change in the Israeli position."

The United States, Israel's close ally, still accuses Syria of sponsoring terrorism, aiding Hamas militants, and supplying Shi’ite Hizballah guerrillas, who in the past have tried to topple the pro-Western Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora.