The walls behind the gates were lined with Syrian flags and large posters of President Bashar Al Assad, who is seeking a third seven-year term in office. The polling took place from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters lined up to cast their ballots in a large plastic bin. Traditional tea, orange juice and pistachio-filled sweets were being distributed.
On the face of it, this was a joyous exercise, as vibrant as India’s recently concluded celebration of democracy. But as the first phase of the Syrian election got underway at 43 embassies around the world, several countries, including France, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, banned Syrians from voting in their territories. They have denounced the elections as a sham that seeks to reinstate Assad as a legitimate state ruler, even as his rivals, aided by foreign powers, are fighting a civil war to remove him from office for using chemical weapons and allegedly committing mass atrocities against civilians.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the elections were “incompatible” with talks that seek a peaceful political transition in Syria. However, the government in Damascus has said the elections are the best way to ensure a political solution to the conflict, which began three years ago with the demand to end to the autocratic rule of Assad family, which has been in power since 1963.
It's genuine, says authorities
Until now, Syria has held only referendums, with a single candidate on the ballot. Voters had a choice of saying yes or no to this choice. But an amendment to the constitution in 2011 requires the polls to be contested by more than one candidate. As a result, the ballot papers used in Delhi included photographs of three candidates: in addition to Assad, there were images of Hassan el-Nuri and Maher al-Najjar, both little-known MPs.
Despite this, many have dismissed the election as a farce. The rules require candidates to have lived in Syria for the last ten years, thus disqualifying most of the key opposition figures, who live in exile to ensure their security. Besides, polling will also take place only in areas of Syria controlled by the regime, leaving out large territories still under control of rebel groups.
Syria's Ambassador to India, Riad Abbas, told Scroll.in that countries that claim the elections are undemocratic are opposing the will of the Syrian people and curtailing their aspirations. “Those who are not allowing elections, they are showing their real face that they are against democracy,” Abbas said. “Why are they stopping Syrian people from expressing their opinion? They are afraid because they are aware that all the people will be selecting and voting Assad because they want him to be in power and on Syrian ground.’’
India has maintained that any solution for the crisis in Syria needs to come from within the country and has opposed any military intervention.
Assad is crowd favourite
In Vasant Vihar, it was clear that Assad was the overwhelming favourite. “No matter how many candidates stand, we will vote for the one we believe will lead us to victory,” said Betoul Khoja, president of the Syrian Students Union. “And we believe in Assad.”
Fahad Khoudary, a businessman from Aleppo who immigrated to Jordan because of the war, was in India on a three-day trip but found the time to drop by the embassy on Wednesday evening to vote for Assad. “Other countries internationally don’t want Assad but we Syrians want him,” he said. “He will put an end to this fighting. He will bring peace.”
Sentiments like these only seemed to reiterate the fears of the international community that only supporters of the regime would participate in the elections, lending it little credibility.
Groups of students and Assad supporters came to vote wearing t-shirts bearing the President’s image. "Assad is our hero. He will win this war,’’ said the President’s namesake Bshar Bdoor, student of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
Most of these young student voters said the opposition in Syria and the protests were being sponsored by foreign countries that aimed to install a compliant leadership that would allow them to secure Syria’s oil and energy resources. “We don’t want democracy from a country like US which has destroyed Iraq, which attacked Libya and now wants to enter Syria,” said Hasan Awwad student who came from the neighbouring Punjab state to vote for the elections in Delhi.
If Assad is removed from power, the students said, Syria will be divided. Its secular fabric consisting of the ruling minority Alawite sect (which Assad belongs to), Christians, Druze along with Sunni Muslims will be shredded along religious lines. Tamam Mohamad, from the Tartous region, who is now studying Linguistics at the JNU, said that if Assad goes, Syria will become like Iraq and Libya. “We can’t imagine Assad leaving power and throwing open Syria to all these militias,” he said.
At present, Assad’s Shia regime is supported by Iran and by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. Opposing him are various Sunni rebel factions funded, among others, by Saudi Arabia. The war between Shias and Sunnis has turned Syria into a playground for global jihadis groups. Currently, nationals of 38 foreign countries, including Britain, France, Iraq and Morocco, are fighting in Syria. Some of the groups want to turn Syria into a radical Islamic state.
“The most dangerous terrorists are currently fighting in Syria,” said Awwad. “How can we talk about democracy when the country is at war? The priority now is to fight this terror and stop the war. Despite opposition and militants fighting from all sides, we believe in Assad and we want him to remain in power.”
The fight to control Syria has led to deaths of over 162,000 people. It has also resulted in a terrible humanitarian crisis, with over 5,000 civilians fleeing the war-ravaged country every day to seek refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and even in Europe. Until now, more than nine million people have been displaced within the country and over 2.5 million have fled, making this the largest human flight since the Rwanda genocide in 1992.
None of that was evident in Vasant Vihar, as officials packed away the votes in a sealed envelope in the evening, to be counted ahead of the June 3 election. A delegation from Syria is in Delhi to monitor the voting process and will also oversee the counting of votes along with a special election committee formed by the Syrian embassy here and members of the Syrian community in India.
People who had cast their votes said that the election would put Assad in a stronger position to end the war. “We will get rid of all the terrorists,” said Khoja of the students union. "And Assad will bring this victory…This election is one step towards peace."