DAMASCUS, Syria – Waving photos of their leader and dancing with flags, tens of thousands of Syrians pledged renewed allegiance to President Bashar Assad as they voted Tuesday across government-controlled parts of the country in a presidential election decried by the opposition as a charade.
Some stamped their ballots with blood after pricking their fingers with pins supplied by the government in a symbolic act of allegiance and patriotism. Others chose to vote in full sight of other voters and television cameras — rather than go behind a partition curtain for privacy.
Men and women wore lapel pins with Assad's picture and said re-electing him would give the Syrian leader more legitimacy to find a solution to the devastating three-year conflict that activists say has killed more than 160,000 people, about a third of whom were civilians.
Even as crowds of Assad's supporters flocked to the polls in Damascus, the sounds of war were inescapable.
The dull sounds of explosions reverberated in the distance as pro-government forces and rebels battled in nearby rural towns and ashy plumes of grey smoke marked the skyline. Several mortar hits were reported in the capital, though the voting was largely peaceful.
The balloting is only taking place in government-controlled areas and Assad's win — all but a foregone conclusion — would give him a third seven-year term in office, tighten his hold on power and likely further strengthen his determination to crush the insurgency against his rule.
The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a sham. The so-called internal Syrian opposition groups seen as more lenient are also boycotting the vote, while many activists around the country are referring to it as "blood elections" for the horrific toll the country has suffered.
The vote is also Syria's first multi-candidate presidential election in more than 40 years and is being touted by the government as a referendum measuring Syrians' support for Assad. He faces two government-approved challengers in the race, Maher Hajjar and Hassan al-Nouri, both of whom were little known in Syria before declaring their candidacy for the country's top post in April.
In government strongholds of Damascus and Lattakia, the voting took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with voters singing and dancing, all the while declaring undying loyalty to Assad.
In Homs, Syria's third largest city, the atmosphere was more restrained, with people standing in long lines to vote. In the destroyed Old City, recently evacuated by hundreds of rebel fighters after a cease-fire agreement with Assad's government forces, there was only one polling station, placed in the courtyard of a the heavily damaged St. Mary's Church of the Holy Belt.
The government has presented the election as the solution to the conflict, but there is no indication it will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation. The stage-managed balloting also will likely put to rest any illusions that the man who has led Syria since 2000 has any intention of relinquishing power or compromising to reach a political solution.
Syrian TV said Assad cast his ballot in the morning hours at a school in the posh Damascus neighborhood of al-Malki where he resides. The TV showed him in a dark blue suit and tie, flanked by his wife, Asma, both smiling as they cast their vote.
In his first public appearance since undergoing heart surgery in March, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem voted with a Syrian flag wrapped like a shawl around his neck.
"The path toward a political solution to the crisis begins today," he declared.
A mortar shell crashed near the Opera House on Omayyad Square, one of Damascus' two landmark plazas, but caused no damage or casualties.
At a polling station in the upscale Dama Rose hotel in central Damascus, a cup filled with pins was on offer for those who chose to vote in blood. Some pricked their fingers repeatedly to ensure they drew enough blood to mark the circle under Assad's name on the ballot. Most, though, voted in ink.
"With the leadership of Bashar, my country will return to safety," said student Uday Jurusni, who voted in blood, after pricking his finger. "He is my leader and I love him."
Outside the hotel, about two dozen men banged drums, waved flags and danced as they chanted, "God, Syria and Bashar!" Streets around polling centers were awash with Assad posters.
In one Damascus polling station, government official Basam Ramadani stood with a small pile of syringes instead of pins for those wishing to vote in blood.
After using one of the syringes, voter Firyal Sheikh El-Zour, 50, proudly displayed her bloodied finger to the media. Another voter suspiciously glanced at the syringes, then muttered: "Give me a clean needle."
Security was tight, with multiple rings of checkpoints set up around the Syrian capital and its entrances. Troops searched cars and asked people for their IDs.
There was no balloting in much of northern and eastern Syria, where swaths of territory are in rebel hands. Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad voted last week, although many of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees across the region either abstained or were excluded by voting laws.
But even as voting got under way in government-controlled parts of Syria, activists reported fighting, shelling and air raids in rebel-held areas.
In the rebel-held central town of Rastan, which has been under attack by government forces for more than two years, an activist who goes by the name of Murhaf al-Zoubi said all the local residents "want Assad to go."
"There are no elections here, this is a free, liberated area," al-Zoubi said.
The Interior Ministry said there were 15.8 million eligible voters, both inside and outside Syria, and that 9,600 voting centers have been set up around the country. Polls were expected to close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening but the ministry has said voting could be extended for five hours if there was a big turnout.
A London-based Syrian opposition figure, Muhieddine Lathkani, called the vote a "black comedy."
"This election has no value and no one will recognize it, no matter what North Korea and Iran think about it," he said, referring to some of the key states allied with Assad.