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'Where is the democracy here?': Defiant Assad holds parliamentary elections in Syria

“The elections confirm the true image of democracy in Syria," Information Minister Imad Sarah told reporters after casting his vote.
Image: Syrian men carry ballot boxes
Syrian men in the city of Aleppo carry ballot boxes which were delivered by police to polling stations on the eve of Sunday's parliamentary elections. AFP - Getty Images

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Millions remain displaced as the nine-year long civil war continues in Syria between Russian backed forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebels in the conflict-ridden country.

But even as the fighting continues, parliamentary elections began on Sunday in areas controlled by the long-time leader whose country has become an insoluble problem for world powers, drawing in the United States, Russia and Turkey.

Around 7,400 polling stations have been set up across the country for Sunday's vote, according to Syria’s state-run SANA News Agency, which reported that 2,100 candidates will compete for 250 parliamentary seats.

For some Syrian citizens and experts alike, the result is a forgone conclusion — Assad’s Baath Party is expected to win comfortably.

"This is not an election, this is an absurd and cheap play done by the Syrian regime," Haitham Darwish told NBC News by telephone from a refugee camp in Syria’s northern Idlib province.

"There is no such thing called democracy in the areas that are controlled by Assad's forces," said Darwish, 47. The father of six added that “elections should be done when the country is united and when people can go back to their hometowns."

Image: Campaign posters of candidates in Syria
Campaign posters of candidates for the parliamentary election in the northern city of Aleppo.AFP - Getty Images

His comments were echoed by Hatem Ismail, a member of Syria’s Yeketi Party of Kurdistan, from the northern city of Raqqa.

“It’s not an electoral process, but rather a process that appoints the names of the parliamentarians who support the current regime,” Ismail, 40, told NBC News by telephone. “Where is the democracy here?”

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London think tank Chatham House, agreed that the elections would not “be free nor fair.”

Assad’s regime was hoping to show that “the Syrian state is functioning despite the pressures it is facing economically and politically,” she said, adding that many of the candidates were business people who were internationally sanctioned, while some have close connections with Russia or Iran.

The elections were “more of a preparatory step for the presidential elections that are due to take place next year,” she said. Assad, who has maintained a tight grip on power since he became president just over 20 years ago, “expected to win” those elections, she said.

While his rule has been mired by a nine-year civil war, which erupted in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings that swept across the Middle East, with the backing of Russian forces, in recent years his regime has gradually been able to reassert control.

It currently holds around 70 percent of the country, according to the London-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Turkish and Kurdish forces, along with other rebel groups hold the remaining territory.

The bloody conflict has caused "unprecedented devastation and displacement," according tothe United Nations, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and the country economically exhausted.

More than 5 million Syrians have fled the country — many to nearby Lebanon and Turkey — and the U.N. estimates that at least 6 million people are displaced within the country, so it is unclear how many people will be able to vote.

Some like Mohamed Sharif, who lives in the northeastern city of Qamishli have vowed not to vote in what he called an “illegal” election.

"The regime for nine years until now never presented a plan for national reconciliation, never presented a plan to solve the existing problems in Syria," Sharif, 51, told NBC News by telephone.

But Khatib said the election was nonetheless “a way for the Assad regime to present itself as legitimate domestically, and to send a message of defiance to the international community.”

Image: Bashar al-Assad
Bashar al-Assad waving to supporters as he marches behind the coffin of his father, former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, during his funeral in Damascus in June 200. Rabih Moghrabi / AFP - Getty Images file

NBC News has approached Syria's Presidential Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment about the election.

After casting his vote, Syria's Information Minister Imad Sarah told reporters: “The elections confirm the true image of democracy in Syria."

It will be the second time parliamentary elections have taken place in the country since the conflict began. When the first took place in 2016, Western powers denounced the vote as illegitimate, while Russia, a staunch Syria-ally, said the elections were necessary to avoid a power vacuum.

This year’s election has already been postponed twice because of concerns about coronavirus in the country where 496 cases and 25 deaths from the disease have been recorded, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Preventative COVID-19 measures are in place, such as social distancing and the use of personal pens, the SANA News Agency reported, but aid agencies have nonetheless expressed concerns about outbreaks in Idlib.

For Sharif however, it is not fear of the virus that is stopping him from voting, but anger about the election.

"We are mad… They are illegitimate," he said.

Ammar Cheikh Omar reported from Antakya, Charlene Gubash from Cairo and Adela Suliman from London.

Reuters contributed to this report.