updated 5/29/2007 9:47:25 AM ET 2007-05-29T13:47:25

President Bashar Assad won another seven years in office, getting 97 percent of the vote in a nationwide referendum on his leadership in which he was the only candidate, according to results announced Tuesday.

Interior Minister Bassam Abdul-Majid said that 95 percent of the country’s almost 12 million voters turned out at the polls in Sunday’s presidential vote.

Only 19,635 voters said “no” to Assad’s re-election, while 253,000 ballots were considered invalid.

Victory celebrations in Syria had been going on ever since parliament, which is dominated by a pro-government Baathist coalition, unanimously nominated the 42-year-old leader on May 10 for another term.

Parliament was to convene a special session later Tuesday to officially endorse Assad’s re-election.

Modernizing ophthalmologist
Assad, a British-educated ophthalmologist, became president shortly after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000. In his first referendum, he also received 97 percent approval.

Abdul-Majid said Assad would be sworn in before the July 17 end of his current term. He said the current Cabinet would stay on.

Since coming to power, Assad has led a campaign to modernize Syria, introducing new economic measures and freeing hundreds of political prisoners. Critics accuse him of suppressing pro-democracy activists, rampant corruption and mass arrests, although many fear openly expressing dissent.

Sunday’s vote was boycotted by the country’s tiny opposition, which said Syrians should have a choice in who governs them.

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

Abdul-Majid told a news conference that Assad’s re-election was “proof of our people’s political maturity and an expression of their willingness to go on with the process of construction and modernization, as well as a confirmation of the principal values Syria has adopted under (the president’s) wise leadership.”

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