DAMASCUS // Syria held municipal elections yesterday amid continued violence that killed at least 10 people, and a boycott of voting by opposition groups.
The authorities hailed the nationwide ballot as a critical step towards democracy, and concrete evidence that President Bashar Al Assad is acting on promises to reform a decades-old autocracy.
"Despite the hard situation in the country, there is the political will among the leadership to hold a democratic election and to let the people have their say," said Umran Zaubie, a prominent member of the ruling Baath Party. "It also shows that life is normal, with no problems in the big cities."
Opposition activists, who refused to field any candidates or cast votes, dismissed the ballot as "utterly meaningless".
The local council positions being contested have few powers beyond issuing neighbourhood building permits. Real decision-making is firmly in the hands of provincial governors and security officers appointed by the president.
"Even if we took part and won every seat in every district in the country, we would still not have the power to make a single decision about the smallest thing," said Mahmoud Muraie, a leading member of the National Coordination Committees, one of the major opposition political blocs.
"To call this an 'election' is an abuse of the word, it's empty talk, and it is certainly not a sign of a serious reform agenda. If they are serious about reform, let them release all the political prisoners and allow independent observers into Syria for a start."
Government officials say this ballot - municipal elections are held every four years - differs from previous ones because the list system that guaranteed dominance for a Baath party-led coalition had been dropped, ostensibly giving a freer choice of candidates.
In addition, this year a judicial committee rather than the interior ministry is overseeing electoral integrity, and a new local administration law purports to have devolved greater powers to municipalities.
State-run media reported yesterday that Syrians had "flocked" to the polls, although no official figure for turnout was given. However even staunch regime supporters quietly acknowledged that few people would take part, given the low stakes and continuing violence.
"Maybe 40 to 45 per cent will participate in Damascus and stable cities but in the areas where there are problems, like rural Damascus, Homs, Deraa and Idleb, perhaps turnout will be between 2 and 10 per cent," said Mr Zaubie.
Opposition activists said fewer than 5 per cent of the eligible 14.5 million voters would participate, and that the authorities would falsify the returns to make it appear as if turnout had been high.
In a polling station at a school in Marsaken Barzeh, on the restive northeastern side of Damascus, fewer than 80 people had cast votes by midday yesterday.
"It is my national duty and the duty of every Syrian citizen to vote," said Nada Al Sweda, a 55-year old government employee.
"Everyone has their own opinions and aspirations and I should choose a candidate who will best fulfil those, if I want a better municipal authority, I should cast my vote to make sure that improvement happens," he said.
The bloodshed that has characterised Syria's nine-month uprising continued yesterday, with 10 people killed by security forces in Idleb and Homs, according to human rights monitors. A second day of heavy fighting between army deserters and loyalist forces was also reported in Idleb and Deraa, and a general strike called on Sunday was still being observed in some parts of the country, including Homs and Douma.
By the latest United Nations count more than 4,000 civilians have been killed by the security services since March. Syrian officials say upwards of 1,000 security personnel have been killed by insurgents, whom they blame for civilian casualties.