- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, March 2 (UPI) — Syrian voters headed Sunday to the polls to elect 250 representatives for seats in the new People's Council, the country's parliament.

Some 5,000 voting polls in various parts of the country opened at 8 a.m. Poll watchers have noticed a relatively weak turnout in some areas of Damascus through midday. Interior Minister Brigadier Ali Hammoud however said the turnout was "good in all provinces" and the "voting is taking place in a democratic and free way."

Vice President Mohammed Zuheir Masharkah, after casting his ballot, said that "voting is not only a right but a duty on the citizens especially that the region is witnessing an escalating tension."

Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro called on the Syrians to "exercise their democratic right in order to help consolidate the country's economic and social structure as well as efforts of modernization and development led" by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

On his part, Information Minister Adnan Omran hailed the great number of candidates — nearly 5,000 for the 250 seats — as "a proof of people's involvement in political life."

A number of wealthy merchants in Damascus who are candidates reportedly paid $10 to $20 for a vote and distributed their products for free in an attempt to attract the greatest number of voters. Such reports angered independent candidates who could not do the same and denounced such violations.

Syria's official Syrian News Agency on Sunday counted a total of 4,945 candidates in all districts after the withdrawal of many from a total of 10,000 who first announced their candidacy to the elections.

Dozens of delegates gathered in front to the polls to convince voters to cast their ballots in favor of their candidates.

Jihad Kousa, a 20-year-old student and a delegate of a wealthy 36-year-old candidate Mohammed Hamsho who reportedly spent $1 million on his election campaign, said Hamsho allocated some $120,000 to pay his 2,700 delegates spread across the country.

Fatat Mahmoud, 45, knows nothing about the electoral program of her candidate Maher al-Bourghali. Mahmoud said she voted for al-Bourghali as "it's enough his office is opened to all people and he listens to everyone's demands."

Imad Baghdadi, said he voted for the list of the National Progressive Front, which is led by the ruling Baath Party and includes seven other licensed parties, as well as for four wealthy businessmen whom he described as intellectuals and have enough experience to fight unemployment."

The Front's candidates usually win the elections and secure 167 out of the

parliament's 250 seats. Some 135 seats go to the Baath Party while the 32 others are reserved for the front's remaining seven parties. The independent candidates were to compete for winning the remaining 83 seats.

In a surprise move late Saturday, the Syrian leadership decided to change all employees supervising the polls in order to secure "free and honest elections" and to prevent "any possible alliance and cooperation with the candidates."

The elections will continue until Monday when vote counting was to start. The official results were expected to be released Tuesday.

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