King, Assad say keen to enhance bilateral ties

AMMAN/DAMASCUS (AFP & Petra) — King Abdullah on Tuesday telephoned Syrian President Bashar Assad to congratulate him for winning a second seven-year mandate, officials announced on Tuesday.

During the telephone call, the two leaders said they were keen to enhance bilateral relations and cooperation, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

The King earlier sent a cable of congratulations to the Syrian president.

Assad, 41, won a massive 97.62 per cent in Sunday’s referendum, with some 11.19 million Syrians taking part, or almost 96 per cent of those eligible, according to Interior Minister Bassam Abdel Majid.

In a referendum in which Assad, who has resisted Western pressure to reform Syria, was the sole candidate, “no” voters numbered almost 20,000 and some 250,000 ballots were void, he said.

King Abdullah swiftly telephoned after the official results to congratulate Assad, Petra news agency reported.

In July 2000, Assad was again the unchallenged candidate to succeed his father Hafez who died the previous month. The official result then showed that Bashar’s vote also topped 97 per cent.

“The last few years have demonstrated the competence of President Assad in managing events while remaining faithful to national causes,” the interior minister said, in reference to US pressures on Damascus over Lebanon and Iraq.

“Syria has undergone all sorts of pressure to renounce its national stand but it has remained true to its positions,” Abdel Majid said.

“A series of laws have been passed in favour of judicial, administrative and economic reforms paving the way for good economic growth,” he said. “Improving the standard of living of Syrians has been a priority.” Abdel Majid said he would submit the referendum results to parliament speaker Mahmud  Abrash for the house to declare Assad president for another seven years. The session was scheduled for 1500 GMT.

With parliament having unanimously approved Assad’s candidature and with vocal opponents of the regime locked up, the result was never in doubt.

While the authorities focused the campaign on stability in a region awash with bloodshed, the one tolerated opposition grouping has no legal status and was unable to field candidates.

In private, a Syrian called Alaa said on Sunday there was no point in voting. “Bashar doesn’t need my vote to get a 100 per cent yes,” he said.

With Syria under emergency law since the Baath party came to power in 1963 and opposition parties banned, authorities have clamped down on pro-democracy activists, drawing fire from Washington and the European Union.

Kamal Labwani, accused of contacts with the United States, was sentenced to 12 years in jail, the harshest sentence since Bashar  Assad took power.

After Hafez  Assad’s three decades of rule, the arrival in power of the Western-educated eye-doctor, Bashar, raised hopes that the inflexible political system might be liberalised.

But the brief period of relative freedom of expression, known as the Damascus Spring, was rapidly quashed with the arrest of 10 opposition activists in 2001.

The latter years of Assad’s first term were marked by deteriorating relations with the United States which in 2004 imposed economic sanctions on Damascus, which Washington accuses of trying to destabilise Iraq and Lebanon.

Assad has also faced heavy international pressure after the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in Beirut, which was then under Syrian control.

That pressure led to Damascus pulling its troops out of Lebanon in April 2005 after a 29-year presence.

Domestically, anticipated political reforms — a law allowing different political parties liberalisation of the press, and electoral reform — remain stillborn, although economic reforms have made some progress.

Syria forecasts economic growth of around 7 per cent for 2007, up from 5.1 per cent in 2006, Economy Minister Amer Lutfi said in state newspapers on voting day. 

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