x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Referendum goes ahead as 34 more Syrians die

State media report strong turnout on vote on constitution but polling stations in Damascus are deserted and troops at checkpoints outnumber civilians.

A celebration organised by pro-regime activists, dressed in police uniforms, of the referendum on a new constitution has one woman dancing in the streets in Damascus yesterday, but many other Syrians were unhappy about the vote.
A celebration organised by pro-regime activists, dressed in police uniforms, of the referendum on a new constitution has one woman dancing in the streets in Damascus yesterday, but many other Syrians were unhappy about the vote.

DAMASCUS // Syria's referendum on a new constitution went ahead yesterday amid an opposition call for a boycott and violence that activists said killed at least 34 people.

State media reported a strong turnout after polling centres opened at 7am, with live television broadcasts from across the country saying large numbers of the 14.6 million eligible electors had voted.

But anecdotal reports suggested actual turnout was limited, with dozens or, at best, a few hundred people casting ballots at voting centres even in densely populated areas.

Presented by the authorities as a major piece of reform legislation, the proposed constitution would end mandatory Baath party rule and introduce contested presidential elections for the first time in more than four decades.

Such measures would have been unthinkable a year ago.

But after 11 months of demonstrations and growing violence in which human-rights monitors say security forces have killed about 7,000 people, opposition groups have called the proposals an insult.

Protesters are now demanding nothing sort of overthrowing the president, Bashar Al Assad, and dismantling the security apparatus that has underpinned his rule and that of his father, Hafez Al Assad.

The new constitution would do nothing to limit sweeping presidential powers or rein in security services that wield de facto control over everyday life, Syrian legal experts say. It also opens the door to Mr Al Assad's remaining in office until 2028 - with the possibility of a further extension.

In Daraya, a teeming working-class suburb on the southern edge of Damascus heavily involved in anti-regime protests, calls for a referendum boycott appeared to have been widely observed.

The streets were almost deserted late yesterday morning, with the soldiers on duty at the ubiquitous checkpoints outnumbering civilians.

Dozens of people have been killed in Daraya since the uprising began in March and a series of military operations have failed to stop recurring demonstrations.

Soldiers were dispatched to the area last month to break a protest strike, forcing business owners to open their premises.

Despite bright spring sunshine the atmosphere was of a ghost town. Metal shutters were pulled down over all but a handful of shops.

On a major road into Daraya, next to a filling station that draws a large crowd each evening before the day's diesel shipment arrives, a white coach raked from front to back by gunfire stood abandoned in the dust.

Few of the residents who had stepped outside knew the location of any of the area's 20 voting centres, and some laughed at the suggestion that anyone would care to find one.

A labourer, a father of two in his early 20s, waiting to hitch a lift to work from passing cars, said he had no intention of voting.

"I've heard about the referendum on the radio and television but I'm not interested, feeding my family takes up all of my time and energy," he said.

"We've not been able to afford to eat meat for two months, that's what concerns me - I don't care about a new constitution."

One polling station in central Daraya had been fortified with sandbags and the main road in front of it shut to traffic. Anti-regime graffiti urging Mr Al Assad to leave had been smeared on its walls and half-heartedly painted over.

At a small health clinic turned polling station nearby, also guarded by soldiers, 31 people had voted by 11.30am, the ballot box set on a table beneath a poster of Mr Al Assad in a room darkened by a power cut.

"I think the constitution is good for the country, it will give us multiple parties and that will serve the people's interests," said a 36-year-old woman, a resident of neighbouring Moadamiya - also a protest hot spot - who works as a government employee in Daraya.

"It's good that the presidential terms will be fixed and limited," she said, explaining her decision to vote in favour of the proposed laws.

"I hope this will help bring security and stability back to the country, I just want things to return to normal."

Another voter in the medical centre, Mohammad Ahmed, 31, a labourer, admitted to being illiterate and to understanding nothing of the constitution he had come to endorse.

"My friends say the constitution is good and will help to calm the situation down so I have come to support it for that reason," he said.

In Qadam, another restive working-class neighbourhood on the capital's southern edge, 210 people had voted by early afternoon in a polling station next to a heavily defended police station.

Anas Al Harj, 37, a doctor who voted in favour of the new constitution, said it would play an important part in reforming Syria. He angrily dismissed those calling for a boycott of the referendum.

"None of the people who want to boycott have even read the laws," he said. "Instead of just being negative about everything, they should get involved in the process and they should negotiate."

Some moderate opponents of the proposed laws said they had examined them closely and they had fallen far short of expectations, failing to establish a modern state that would enshrine rule of law and ensure a circulation of power, rather than a continue monopoly of the country by a narrow ruling elite.

A resident of Midan, another Damascus neighbourhood whose name has become synonymous with the rebellion, said the constitution would change nothing.

"They are holding a vote and talking about democracy at the same time as they are killing the people and drowning us in our own blood," he said. "It's disgusting, a disgrace. This regime doesn't know what freedom is so it cannot give it to us."

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, said at least 34 people were killed yesterday including 17 in the besieged city of Homs.

Sana, the official Syrian news agency, said seven security officers "killed by armed terrorist groups" were buried yesterday. The authorities say more than 2,000 security personnel have been killed during the uprising.

psands@thenational.ae