DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrians headed to polling stations in government-held parts of the war-torn country on Sunday to elect a new parliament amid strict health measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The vote is the third to take place in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011. It has killed more than 400,000, displaced half the country’s population and displaced more than five million as refugees, mostly into neighboring countries.
This year’s vote follows a new wave of U.S. sanctions that came into effect last month and a campaign to fight corruption that saw a wealthy cousin of President Bashar Assad come under pressure to pay back tens of millions of dollars to the state.
The elections also coincide with Syria’s worst economic crisis and a currency crash, which has dragged more of the county’s population into poverty
Some 1,656 government-approved candidates are running this year for the 250-seat People’s Assembly. The total number of eligible voters hasn’t been announced.
No vote was being held in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, or in the country’s northeast, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish-led fighters.
As in previous elections in Syria, the vote will produce a rubber-stamp body loyal to the president.
Inside polling stations, all workers were wearing masks and gloves, and voters had to use their own pens in the sanitized booths. Once their ballots were cast, they had to leave immediately, as no gatherings were allowed inside. People also had to keep a safe distance while waiting for their turn.
Assad and his wife Asma, both wearing masks, voted Sunday morning in Damascus at the Ministry of Presidential Affairs.
Information Minister Imad Sarah said the vote “emphasizes the cohesion of the Syrian homeland, that after nine years of war, Syria will not kneel,” speaking to reporters after casting his ballot.
Assad has twice postponed the country’s parliamentary elections this year in light of restrictions in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Assad himself is not standing for election.
Syria, which had a prewar population of 22 million, has reported 496 coronavirus cases and 25 deaths. However, the actual numbers are likely far higher and increases have been reported in recent days.
The head of the Higher Judicial Committee for the Elections, Judge Samer Zumriq, confirmed on Saturday in a statement to state news agency SANA that more than 7,400 polling stations have been set up in 15 voting districts. They include 1,400 stations where troops and members of the country’s security services will vote.
Polling centers opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and were scheduled to close 12 hours later. It was extended by four hours until 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) because of high turnout.
Results are expected to be announced the following day.
Some 167 seats are allocated for Assad’s ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party — guaranteeing it a solid majority — while the rest are allocated for independents, including merchants, businessmen and industrialists.
“We hope that the members of the new council would work to improve the living conditions of citizens by enacting new legislation,” said Samir Sulaiman, a 50-year-old employee.
This year’s vote comes as the country is also witnessing harsh economic conditions including a crash in the local currency worsened by U.S. sanctions and an economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon.
The so-called Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act envisages sanctions on Syrian troops and others responsible for atrocities committed during Syria’s civil war, and also provides funding for war crimes investigations and prosecutions.
Syria calls the sanctions acts of “economic terrorism.”
Outgoing legislator Mohannad Haj Ali, who is under U.S. and European sanctions, said the country is experiencing a “suffocating economic and political siege.” He also said Syrian citizens are aware of corruption within state institutions, adding that Assad has started “dealing with corruption by tracking down on the corrupt.”
Haj Ali did not give any names, but his comments came after Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was once described as central to Syria’s economy, has been pleading for Assad to help prevent the collapse of his business.
Syria’s last parliament was elected in April 2016, when large parts of Syria were outside of government control and people there did not take part in the polling. Since then, Assad’s forces have captured much of Syria with the help of his allies Russia and Iran.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.