- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria will hold presidential elections on June 3, the country’s parliament speaker announced Monday, a vote President Bashar Assad is likely to contest, and win, as the country enters its fourth year of war.

Assad, who has ruled the country since taking over from his late father in 2000, has suggested he would seek another seven-year term in office, reflecting his determination to show he is the legitimate leader of Syria. He has strengthened his once-tenuous hold on power in recent months with a crushing military assault to recapture key urban areas, likely hoping to have them under government control before the vote is held.

The conflict, which began as demonstrations against Assad’s rule in March 2011, is now a civil war that has killed 150,000 people and forced one-third of the country’s population from their homes.


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Anti-Assad activists immediately said they would boycott the vote, calling it a farce. World leaders have denounced Assad’s intention to hold elections with the country still engulfed in violence.

Parliament Speaker Mohammed Laham said candidates seeking to run for president may register their candidacy from Tuesday, April 22 until May 1.

“I call on the citizens of the Syrian Arab republic, inside and outside (the country) to exercise their right in electing a president,” Laham said from parliament in comments broadcast live on state-run television.

Syrians living outside of the country may start voting earlier, from May 28, Laham said. It was not clear whether he meant that to include more than 2.5 million refugees in neighboring states — an unlikely scenario due to logistical and political considerations.

Assad has not publicly said whether he would run, but in recent months he appeared to be in campaign mode, visiting areas recently retaken by his forces. State media have broadcast images of seemingly ecstatic residents welcoming the president during such trips.

On Sunday, Assad visited the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, where he projected the image of a protector of Syria’s religious minorities, many of whom feel threatened by the majority Sunni rebels.

The government has presented the elections as the solution to the crisis: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, then he will leave.

In the chaos of the conflict, there are no official statistics on public support for Assad. But it appears Syrians are cleaved between those who support Assad and those who seek his overthrow, with many more mistrustful of all the country’s warring parties.

The armed rebellion is dominated by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, while Syria’s mix of Christian and Muslim minorities, including Assad’s own Alawite sect, tend to support the president, fearful of their fates should hard-line Sunni Muslims come to power.

The announcement raised questions on how the vote would be held, logistically, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians living either in rebel-held areas, contested areas, or under blockade by pro-government forces.

“Unfortunately, unfortunately, unfortunately, in the elections on June 3, Bashar Assad would be holding elections over the blood of Syrians,” Ahmad Alqusair said via Skype from a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border. “If we are being blockaded from even eating bread, how can I vote?”

Highlighting security concerns even in areas under firm government control, the elections announcement Monday came just hours after a pair of mortar shells stuck some 100 meters (100 yards) from the parliament building in central Damascus, killing five people, according to state TV.

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