- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria — Posters plastered on walls of the capital and songs blaring from cars and loudspeakers proclaimed “We love you” as Syrians voted yesterday in a referendum to endorse President Bashar Assad — the only candidate — for a second term.

The country’s tiny opposition boycotted the voting, saying Syrians should have a choice in who governs them. Critics of Mr. Assad’s regime accuse him of clamping down on pro-democracy activists, rampant corruption and mass arrests, though many are fearful of openly expressing dissent.

The regime is also under intense international scrutiny, accused of meddling in Iraq, supporting Palestinian militant groups and involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Under Mr. Assad’s rule, Syrian troops were forced out of Lebanon after an outcry over Mr. Hariri’s killing.

Still, the president is assured of another seven-year term in a referendum that gave voters just one choice: a green circle to approve Mr. Assad or a gray one to oppose his second term. In his first referendum, he received 97.29 percent approval.

The 42-year-old British-educated ophthalmologist became president shortly after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad, in 2000. Earlier this month, the parliament, dominated by a pro-government Ba’athist coalition, unanimously nominated Mr. Assad for another term.

Hopes were high among Syrians when the young leader came to power, leading a campaign to modernize the country with economic reforms and freeing hundreds of political prisoners.

But he has since cracked down on pro-democracy activists, drawing criticism from human rights groups. In the past two months, six government critics and human rights activists have been convicted and sentenced to up to 12 years in prison.

At a congress of Mr. Assad’s Ba’ath Party in 2005, delegates endorsed the idea of independent political parties and relaxing emergency laws in place since 1963. But those promises have not been realized.

Members of the Damascus Declaration, the broadest coalition of Syrian opposition groups, boycotted the referendum, said Hassan Abdul-Azim, a spokesman for the Arab Socialist Union. He said the opposition, which remains small in Syria, has demanded constitutional amendments calling for increased political representation of other parties.

“We called for the amendment … so that nominations could not be restricted to the Ba’ath Party and give a chance to other candidates to run for the presidency,” Abdul-Azim said.

Top Syrian officials said the referendum was a message to the world that Syrians support Mr. Assad’s policies.

Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa told reporters after casting his vote that Mr. Assad’s leadership is a “national guarantee” because of his “vision, wisdom and courage.”

But over the past few years, Syria has faced enormous international pressure over its roles in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon.

Mr. Assad’s political troubles are likely to be compounded once the United Nations establishes an international tribunal to try Mr. Hariri’s killers, something the Syrian government continues to resist.

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