Syrians vote in presidential referendum

DAMASCUS  (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad cast his vote at a polling station at Damascus University on Sunday as part of a one-day public referendum to endorse him for a second term.

Accompanied by his wife and wearing a dark blue suit, Assad, who is the sole candidate and guaranteed a victory, did not speak to reporters after he voted.

Millions of other Syrians are also expected at the polls Sunday. Most of the nearly 12 million eligible voters, out of Syria’s 18.6 million population, are expected to support Assad’s reelection to a second  seven-year term.

Though Assad’s name is the only one on the ballot, voters can either approve or reject his second term. On the ballot, voters can pick either a green circle to approve Assad, or a grey one to oppose his second term.

The 42-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist became president seven years ago after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad. Earlier this month, the parliament, dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated Assad for another term.

Some 15,000 polling stations across the country opened at 7:00am local time  and the results could be announced by Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid as early as Monday.

Many Syrians expressed their support for Assad including voter Bassam Asfar, 48.

“Yes to the one who has stood in the face of US plans and said no to all pressures facing Syria,” he said outside a polling station.

But members of the Damascus Declaration, the broadest coalition of Syrian opposition groups, boycotted the referendum, said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a spokesman for the Arab Socialist Union.

Abdul-Azim said the opposition has demanded constitution amendments calling for increased political representation from other parties.

“We called for the amendment … so that nominations could not be restricted to the Baath Party and give a chance to other candidates to run for presidency,” he said.

Syria has witnessed celebrations over the past weeks in preparation for the referendum and more are expected after the results are released. On Thursday, about 300,000 people jammed Damascus streets in a rally said to have been the largest ever here.

The phrase “We love you” has been plastered on walls and cars, and is also the title of a new song, made especially for the event that daily blares from loudspeakers, cars and shops.

Several newspapers also showed their support for Assad.

On Sunday, Al-Thawra government newspaper printed a large thick red “yes” on its front page, saying in an editorial, “We elect you because we love Syria. … We discovered that you did not accept humiliation.”

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