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BEIRUT – Syria's first multicandidate presidential elections in decades is being touted by President Bashar Assad's government as measuring Syrians' support for him after three years of civil war that has killed and wounded tens of thousands of people, displaced millions of others and destroyed parts of the country.
Assad, whose family has led Syria for more than 40 years and whose dictatorial ways sparked the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against him in March 2011, is all but certain to win a third, seven-year term despite two other nominal candidates.
Here are five things to know about the election:
1. WHAT THE ELECTION MEANS
The election is an indication the civil war is likely to last a long time. Former U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi, who last month ended nearly two years of efforts to halt the conflict, had warned that Assad's re-election would ruin the only chance for a political dialogue that would lead to a peaceful transition of power. The government has presented the election as the solution to the conflict: If the people re-elect Assad, the fight should end; if he loses, he will gracefully step aside. In reality, the vote puts 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. Rather, he appears emboldened by military victories in recent months that have strengthened his grip on power.
1. WHERE THE VOTING WILL TAKE PLACE
Voting will occur only in government-held territory. Hundreds of thousands of people live in areas that are either contested, held by rebels or blockaded by pro-government forces. Still, some balloting is expected in all major cities except for Raqqa in northeastern Syria, which is completely under the control of the al-Qaida-breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Turnout is expected to be highest in government strongholds, including the capital of Damascus and the coastal provinces of Tartous and the Assad family's ancestral heartland of Lattakia. Voting also will be held in areas recently seized by the government, including central Homs province, but turnout is expected to be lower. Many may vote fearing retribution if they don't. In predominantly Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria, where the army still has some presence, polling stations will be open, although Kurdish parties have vowed a boycott.
1. WHAT THE OPPOSITION SAYS
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, is boycotting the vote. The group's president, Ahmad al-Jarba, has urged the international community to arm Syrian rebels, stressing that only a change in the balance of power would force Assad to negotiate a political solution. Any such assistance has not materialized. The opposition's Western and regional allies, including the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have called the vote a farce. The so-called internal Syrian opposition groups seen as more lenient are also boycotting. Opposition fighters have warned they will try to disrupt the vote with attacks, causing thousands of people to flee government-held Syrian cities in recent days.
1. THE STATUS OF MILLIONS OF REFUGEES
About 2.5 million Syrian refugees are scattered across neighboring countries. Most of them have been either excluded or are boycotting the balloting. Syrian authorities have said that only those who have entered neighboring countries legally could vote, effectively ruling out tens of thousands of refugees — mostly Assad opponents — who fled through unofficial border posts. Lebanon, a country that hosts more than 1 million refugees, has said that Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. will lose their refugee status if they return home to vote.
1. WHAT THE VOTE IS EXPECTED TO CHANGE
Despite government assertions the election could resolve the conflict, there's no indication it will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation. Assad's re-election in itself is not expected to change much, particularly on the battlefield. If there is high voter turnout in government-controlled territory, Assad will be able to claim renewed legitimacy based on continued support from a significant section of the population. The vote will likely be seen as illegitimate abroad, but Assad has scoffed at the opinions of Western leaders anyway, relying instead on the continued, unwavering support of powerful allies Iran and Russia. He is likely to regard the vote as a green light for his military campaign to crush the insurgency while working on local truces and reconciliation to pacify rebel-held areas.