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Syria's capital prepares for election with fresh Bashar Assad portraits

Bashar AssadSyrian Civil WarSyria
There's little mystery about the likely winner of Syria's June 3 presidential election
Syria's election seems intended to send a message of Assad's strength to friends and enemies alike
Many view the challengers in Syria as straw men

Buildings, checkpoints and billboards here in the Syrian capital are festooned with fresh portraits of President Bashar Assad.

Once drab storefronts have been enlivened with new coats of paint in the national colors. Boisterous rallies exalt the incumbent as the indispensable foe of "terrorism."

There's little mystery about the likely winner of the presidential election scheduled for June 3.

On Saturday, authorities formally approved three candidates, Assad and a pair of relatively unknown politicians who are both government stalwarts, Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar and Hassan Abdullah Nouri.

Many view the challengers as straw men likely to win little support as Assad sweeps to a third seven-year term.

Overall, analysts say, the election seems intended to send a message of Assad's strength and resolve to Damascus' friends and enemies alike at a time when events on the battlefield have been going in his government's favor.

The formal election campaign is set to begin Sunday, though what it will consist of remains unclear in a nation without a recent history of competitive elections. This will be the first time during more than four decades of Assad family rule that opponents appear on the presidential ballot.

Government loyalists say the electoral changes signify progress toward democracy. Backers of armed rebels fighting since 2011 to oust Assad call the whole process a sham.

Few expect contentious debates or verbal assaults on Assad's policies, which critics blame for the ruinous war that continues to rage. Assad blames a "conspiracy" of "terrorists" and their foreign backers, including the United States.

Assad's reelection seems assured, and some Syrians interviewed here Saturday said they were uncertain about whether the balloting would make any sort of difference. For some, the significance of the vote seems a much greater imponderable than what they view as a very predictable outcome.

"We know we are approaching this important event, that change will come, but what will it mean?" said a university student, 24, enjoying a soft drink on the edges of a leafy park in the upscale and generally pro-government Abu Rummaneh neighborhood, often the target of rebel mortar fire. "We don't really know."

Like others, the university student asked for anonymity for security reasons.

Assad enthusiasts interviewed seemed firm in their conviction that only positive things could come from seven more years.

"The other two candidates are good men, but they don't have the experience to be a chief of state," said a textile vendor in the Old City's covered Hamidiya market, where giant portraits of Assad hang from the rafters.

A shopper and mother of five offered a contrary view. "Maybe people will be so unhappy with seven more years that everything will explode again," said the woman, who goes by the nickname Um Bassam.

She burst into a broad smile and seemed to surprise herself with her own frankness before hurrying off with her family into the throng of Saturday shoppers.

A soldier doing checkpoint duty in a southern suburb said he hoped that the election would help ease pressure on the thinly stretched army and allow him to get a leave to visit his family, who are refugees in Jordan. He seemed more focused on that than the possible winner.

"I haven't seen my family in three years," said the conscript, who was found with uniformed colleagues eating ice cream at the Bakdash emporium in the Hamidiya market.

None of a dozen or so people interviewed in the capital criticized the president. Many clearly back Assad, though the extent of that support is hard to judge in a war-torn nation with no accurate polling and profound fear of the secret police. Privately, some wondered whether voting for an opposition candidate was even a wise idea, despite supposed secrecy in balloting.

The two opposition candidates are veteran politicians whose political blocs have been part of the ruling coalition. Hajjar, a native of the northern city of Aleppo, is a former communist party activist who now sits in the parliament. Nouri, a Damascus native, has been a member of the parliament, head of the Damascus chamber of industry and development minister in Assad's government.

The polling stations will probably be concentrated in government-controlled districts such as Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, both areas where Assad has strong backing. Officials haven't directly addressed the difficult issue of how to organize voting in heavily contested zones or those out of government control, including suburbs just a few miles from central Damascus.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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