The government said Thursday that Syria’s ruling coalition took an overwhelming majority of seats in parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the opposition as a farce.
The rubber-stamp legislature is likely to consolidate the rule of President Bashar Assad, who is expected to seek its nomination to run for a second seven-year term in July. There had been no doubt about the outcome, because the constitution guarantees the Baath Party and its allies a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Still, the government had hoped the elections would soften the authoritarian image of Syria and ease its international isolation, allowing, for the first time, some criticism in the state-run press of candidates and the lack of electoral programs. The administration also highlighted new anti-fraud measures such as transparent ballot boxes, and $60,000 per candidate campaign spending limit, ostensibly to avoid vote-buying.
Interior Minister Bassam Abdel-Majid said the National Progressive Front, a grouping of 10 political parties led by Assad’s Baath Party, won 172 seats in the 250-member parliament in the tightly controlled elections on Sunday and Monday, an increase of five seats.
Abdel-Majid said the remaining 78 seats went to independents, who have to be approved by the government under Syrian law, and rarely challenge the administration.
Some 2,500 candidates ran for seats in the country of 18.6 million people. Authorities have said that around 7 million citizens are eligible to vote.
Voters in Syria’s 14 electoral districts picked one from a series of lists of parliamentary candidates; on every list, two-thirds of the places were taken by ruling-party candidates.
Turnout was 56 percent, Abdel-Majid told a news conference Thursday.
The figure was certain to be contested by government opponents, who said during polling that they believed the turnout would be between 6 percent and 10 percent.
Critics call election a frace
Dissident Maamoun Homsi, a former lawmaker who was imprisoned before he fled abroad, scoffed at the results as forgeries.
“No parliament in the world today appoints two-thirds of its members without competition ... and allows the rest to be hand-picked by intelligence agencies,” he said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press in Beirut. Critics claim that intelligence agents do a complete check on a candidate before they are approved. Homsi asked that his location in exile not be revealed.
In Syria, human rights campaigner Aktham Naisse dismissed the elections as “undemocratic” and said the turnout had been low.
The incoming parliament had been expected to increase the number of female legislators, but the number elected this week was 30 — the same as in the 2003 elections.
On Tuesday, White House deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino accused the Syrian government of “manipulating” the election.
Abdel-Majid said the U.S. criticism was driven by Syria’s opposition to the occupation of Iraq and told journalists the elections were held in a “climate of freedom, democracy, transparency and fairness.”