Syrians in government-controlled areas headed to polling stations Wednesday to elect a new 250-member parliament that is expected to serve as a rubber stamp for President Bashar Assad.
Voters began turning up shortly after the stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT). Around 3,500 government-approved candidates are competing after more than 7,000 others dropped out.
Early Wednesday, Assad and his wife, Asma, cast their ballots at the Assad Library in Damascus. The president did not make any comments.
The country’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told reporters after voting: “We in Syria always say that the Syrian people decide their destiny and today they are proving practically the accuracy of this saying.”
Parliamentary elections in Syria are held every four years, and Damascus says the vote is constitutional and separate from the peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the five-year war.
But the opposition says it contributes to an unfavorable climate for negotiations amid fierce fighting that threatens an increasingly tenuous ceasefire engineered by the United States and Russia.
Western leaders and members of the opposition have denounced the voting as a sham and a provocation that undermines the Geneva peace talks.
Britain reacted to the election saying the Syrian government’s decision to hold elections in the war-divided country showed “how divorced it is from reality.”
The UK government said in a statement that Wednesday’s elections conducted by President Bashar Assad’s government are not in line with a UN Security Council resolution calling for elections in Syria after an 18-month transitional process.
The statement said the elections “cannot buy back legitimacy by putting up a flimsy facade of democracy.”
And France slammed the elections as “a sham” organized by an “oppressive regime”.
But Russia – an ally to the Assad regime, welcome the elections. The country’s foreign minister said Syria’s parliamentary elections were needed to shore up its existing state structures until peace talks pave way for a new vote.
Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday’s elections are necessary to prevent a “vacuum of power” in Syria. He added that the peace talks set to restart in Geneva this week should lead to an agreement on the country’s new constitution and new elections.
In the Syrian capital, voters said they fully supported holding the elections on time.
“I feel proud today because the elections are a national and democratic duty any honest citizen should practice,” said Wahid Chahine, a 54-year-old government employee, after casting his ballot at a Damascus polling station.
He said the voting is constitutional and should not be postponed, despite millions of other Syrians being unable to take part.
“I hope in the next elections all Syrians will be able to vote and that Syria would be free from all terrorists,” he added.
Marah Hammoud, a 21-year-old journalism student from the central city of Homs, said it is important at this particular time in Syria for people to be able to choose their representatives.
“We want elected officials who care about the people, who can help end this war and control prices,” she said. “We live on this hope.”
The election, in which soldiers are being allowed to vote for the first time, will be conducted only in areas under government control.
Voting stations have been set up in 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces. The northern province of Raqqa is controlled by ISIS, and the northwestern province of Idlib is controlled by its rival, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, as well as other insurgent factions. The government has no presence in either province.
Polls close at 7pm (1600 GMT), but could stay open longer if turnout is high. The results are expected Thursday.
In Turkey, a local news agency said shells fired from Syria have hit a southern Turkish area, the fourth such cross-border incident in less than a week.
The private Dogan news agency said the shells struck two areas of the city center of Kilis on Wednesday morning, triggering panic despite landing on empty land and causing no casualties. Police were dispatched to the affected area. Turkey routinely retaliates after rockets or shells land on its territory.
(Additional editing Al Arabiya English)SHOW MORE