DAMASCUS, Syria — As the cavalcade rolled down the sun-baked boulevard, young men leaning from the vehicles’ windows interspersed calls to vote for President Bashar Assad with choruses of a popular song blaring from roof-mounted speakers.
“Obama, Obama, Maher’s still in his pajamas!”
Maher is Assad’s younger brother and reputedly one of his most ruthless military chiefs. The song is one of contempt, a nose-thumb at President Barack Obama’s failure to carry out threatened military attacks last year in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
Syrians will vote on Tuesday in a presidential election that no one doubts will re-anoint Assad and extend his family’s four-decade-long rule. Defiance of the United States is a cornerstone of the traffic-jamming processions, hagiographic media hoopla, tsunamis of banners and bunting that are the Assad campaign.
“God loves Bashar. So we love him,” said Jehan Gogo, 23, who sells cellphone covers emblazoned with Assad’s slogan “Together” in central Damascus, where Assad portraits — some the length of multistory buildings — blanket almost every sidewalk, traffic circle, shop window and high-rise. Those of his two nominal, little-known rivals — this is the first election in which he’s faced challengers — are all but invisible.
As Syria’s brutal civil war rages into a fourth year with no end in sight, the vote has been derided as a sham by the United States and other Western powers, and as a “parody of democracy” by Assad’s U.S.-backed opponents-in-exile.
But many here are taking the election seriously as an authentic exercise in democracy. Whether genuine or out of fear of the ruling Baath Party-dominated security services, every person but one questioned by a McClatchy correspondent during a weeklong visit said they’d vote for Assad.
A request to interview a senior election official about the difficult wartime logistics of registering voters, setting up polling stations and the procedures for the casting and counting of ballots in the absence of major international observer missions went unanswered.
One of Assad’s challengers, Hassan al-Nouri, a leading businessman and former junior Cabinet minister who said he lived in the United States for 11 years, asserted that he’s been gaining ground in recent days. But he conceded that neither he nor Maher Najjar, an even lesser-known member of Parliament, would win.
“I have a strong segment behind me, but probably it’s not sufficient enough to win,” said al-Nouri, who explained that his goal is actually to gain enough votes that Assad will have to appoint him to the new government to oversee economic, political and social reforms.
In an interview, al-Nouri praised Assad as “a good guy” who is indispensable to military operations against the Islamist rebels but hasn’t been strong enough on economic reform. And he insisted that the vote would be fair and Assad’s inevitable victory would be legitimate.
“We will have a real presidential election,” he declared later to a roomful of supporters.
It’s hard to see how.
Sporadic explosions and the crump of rockets resound night and day across Damascus as regime troops battle rebels besieged with thousands of civilians in a string of suburbs. Barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft and rebel suicide bombers continue to claim civilian lives around the country, vast swaths of which are out of government control or lie in depopulated ruins.
An estimated 9 million Syrians — more than 40 percent of the pre-war population of 22.4 million — have been driven from their homes, an estimated 2.8 million of them scattered as refugees across the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Voting for Syrians outside Syria began on Wednesday, but only those who left by official border posts were eligible to cast ballots at Syrian embassies, a provision that excludes countless others who streamed across the frontiers to escape the war.
There are widespread fears that rebels may launch suicide attacks to disrupt the voting. At least 21 people were killed on May 23 when a rebel mortar shell exploded in an Assad election rally in the southern city of Deraa. None of the three candidates has appeared at a major campaign rally, apparently out of security concerns.
Even Ban Ki-moon, the soft-spoken United Nations secretary-general, sharply criticized Assad’s decision to hold the vote, saying that it will hamper prospects for salvaging an international peace initiative that collapsed in February.
That, however, may be one reason that Assad decided to hold the election. By claiming a third seven-year mandate, he could demand new terms for negotiations because the moribund initiative called for the formation of an interim government in which Assad’s participation was rejected by Washington and the main Syrian opposition coalition.
Many see the vote as critical to bringing international acceptance to Assad’s remaining on.
“Once the international community gets over the election issue, it will be a fact of life. There should be a way to deal with him,” said Elia Samman, a senior member of the Syrian National Social Party, a tolerated opposition group that runs the Ministry of National Reconciliation.
Yet, Samman continued, victory will not mean Assad’s troubles are over. He will have to deliver on promises to defeat the rebels fighting to topple him, rebuild devastated infrastructure, create jobs, save the wobbly Syrian pound and eradicate corruption.
“Bashar should be prepared and plan for this if he wants to stay for another seven years. He faces a huge challenge. Who would want to rule a country after such a destructive war?” said Samman. “He cannot run the country the way he used to. It’s not possible.”
Sami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, said the election won’t help Assad.
“It’s hard to see how he can remain president for a long time,” said Khouri in a telephone interview. “He rules one-third of the country and he’s doing it with massive support from (the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia movement) Hezbollah and Iran. There’s been so much blood spilled.”
Under the constitution, Assad could have extended his term and postponed the election. But he apparently was encouraged by recent army advances, including the capture of the Old City of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, after a devastating siege.
He also appears to be exploiting the failure of the United States and its European and Arab allies to mold the fractious moderate opposition coalition into a cohesive political and military alternative to either Assad or the al-Qaida-linked extremists who’ve come to dominate the rebel movement.
“After three years of war, the president has stood up for his people and fought the terrorists attackers. They tried their best to force our president to leave and they couldn’t defeat him,” said the Rev. Gabriel Daoud, the rector of the Syrian Orthodox church in the capital’s Old City, where strings of flags festoon the ancient bazaar and a giant portrait of Assad hangs from the resplendent Umayyad Mosque.
Moreover, Assad has managed — with Russian and Iranian support — to maintain a veneer of normalcy in Damascus and other government-controlled areas. Electricity, fuel and food are available, although at inflated prices, and schools, universities, hospitals and private businesses have remained open.
“We have a saying that who you know is better than who you don’t know,” said Samir, an Old City shop owner and Assad supporter who declined to give his last name. “It will be better later. We know this situation. It will be safe again.”