Syria parliamentary election campaign on war footing
DAMASCUS, Syria – The streets of Damascus are plastered with campaign posters and banners as President Bashar al-Assad's regime pushes ahead with parliamentary elections despite Syria's nearly 5-year-old civil war.
The war is dominating the campaign for the April 13 vote, which will see nearly 12,000 candidates vying for seats in Syria's 250-seat legislature.
As with the 2012 parliamentary election and a 2014 presidential vote, only Syrians living in government-held areas will be able to cast their ballots.
"We stand for security," reads one campaign slogan. "For the sake of the children who were killed, we will continue," vows another.
One candidate has branded himself as "the voice of the martyrs and the injured", while another claims to represent "the martyrs of our heroic army".
The upcoming vote is the second legislative election held by the Damascus regime since the outbreak of civil war in 2011.
A total of 11,341 candidates aged 25 and above are competing.
While Assad has hailed the "unprecedented" number of candidates running for MP, Western backers of the anti-regime revolt have lashed out at the elections.
French President Francois Hollande, for one, has branded them "provocative" and "totally unrealistic".
On March 10, the domestic opposition which is tolerated in Damascus called for a widespread boycott, accusing the government of using the vote to gain leverage in peace talks.
The High Negotiations Committee, the main exiled opposition body, has branded the vote "illegitimate".
Key Damascus backer Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has shot back saying the planned vote "does not interfere with steps to build the peace process".
The United Nations, for its part, has called for presidential and parliamentary elections within the next 18 months as part of the process.
No vote in Raqqa
Syria's war, which has left over 270,000 dead, has also had a devastating impact on the economy.
"Together, let's help the Syrian pound regain its former glory," one banner reads.
Over the past 5 years, the exchange rate has soared from 50 pounds to the dollar to 500 pounds.
Another poster calls for "eradicating corruption and building a new Syria".
Hisham al-Shaar, head of Syria's electoral committee, said "the elections will be held everywhere except in Raqqa and Idlib provinces," both areas controlled by the jihadist Islamic State (ISIS) group and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
Also excluded are "regions where there are security problems", Shaar said, referring to rebel-held areas.
Residents of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, much of which is controlled by ISIS, will be able to cast ballots "in voting stations in Damascus and its province, as well as in Hasakeh" in the northeast, he told Agence France-Presse.
"Together, hand in hand, we will rebuild Syria," pledges one banner put up by a candidate from Deir Ezzor, which borders Iraq.
Another candidate from the same war-ravaged province proclaims: "Victorious Syria votes."
While parliamentary hopefuls are allowed to hold meetings, distribute brochures and put up posters and banners, they are banned from speaking to the press.
"The aim is to ensure equality between wealthy candidates who can afford to pay for advertising in newspapers and those who can't," Shaar said.
"I'm going to vote for Mohammad Sadeq Dalawan because he's a lawyer and he was my teacher. I've met him several times and I've spoken a lot with him," said Rihaf Esber, a 19-year-old student.
Mohammad al-Khouje however said he has no plans of voting.
"Neither the candidates, nor the former MPs, nor those who came before them have helped us. In the beginning they promise us the moon, and then once they are in office they ignore us. No one deserves my vote," the 35-year-old cameraman said.
"We lead very difficult lives."
Syria's Kurds, who on March 17 unilaterally declared a federal region, are critical of the planned vote.
"It is totally unrealistic for the regime to hold elections at this time. Elections are not being held in the autonomous regions," said Abdel Salam Ahmad, a high-ranking official of the Kurdish Democratic Society Movement.
The 2012 vote was the first since the ruling Baath Party came to power that allowed non-Baathist candidates to run.
Nonetheless, most of the 250 MPs who were sworn in were still members of Assad's party.
That is unlikely to change this time. – Sammy Ketz with Delil Souleiman in Hasakeh, AFP / Rappler.com