The Syrian government issued a moratorium on campaign activity Monday, a day before the country is to hold a much-derided presidential election.
Syrian state news reported that the High Judicial Commission for Elections had declared an end to the three-week electoral campaign. Voting is scheduled from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in an election that many have dismissed as a farce but which the government insists is the solution to Syria's three-year civil war.
"This is a real opportunity for all Syrians to express their will ... in selecting their candidate for president," Information Minister Umran Zoubi said in an interview on state television Sunday. He insisted that most Syrians intend to vote "because the Syrian people yearn for the return of security and stability to the country."
The war in Syria has destroyed large swaths of the country, leaving more than 160,000 dead and 9.5 million destitute, according to estimates.
The election marks the first time since 1963 that more than one name has appeared on a Syrian presidential ballot. Two little-known candidates, Hassan Abdullah Nouri, a 54-year old businessman with an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, and Maher Abdul-Hafiz Hajjar, a legislator from Aleppo, are challenging incumbent President Bashar Assad's bid for a third seven-year term.
Neither challenger is associated with the Syrian rebel movement.
Although Assad's win is virtually guaranteed, Syria's future is far less certain. Although the government has made gains in some areas in recent months, opposition rebels continue to fight in many parts of the country. Rebel groups have issued warnings to civilians to remain in their homes for the duration of the election, while declaring areas around polling stations to be military targets.
"All election centers are legitimate targets for us," declared one rebel group, while members of another threatened the regime, saying they would "ignite the ground from under its feet and come at it from where it does not expect" during the election.
Other opposition members have chosen instead to launch hashtag campaigns on social media exhorting Syrians not to take part in "the Elections of Blood." Others have painted garbage dumpsters in white so as to resemble ballot boxes, adorned with riffs on Assad campaign slogans such as "Minkibbak" ("We will throw you away") instead of the now-infamous "Minhibbak" ("We love you") pro-Assad slogan.
The threat of election-related violence has given rise to reports of people fleeing areas around polling stations, although some question whether the alternatives -- such as heading into rebel-held territory -- are any better.
"Even if some are afraid of such attacks ... there can be no evacuation because the areas that are controlled by the opposition are constantly under threat of bombing," said Abu Huthayfa, the nom de guerre of the spokesman for the rebel "Islam Army" faction, contacted via Skype. "It would be crazy to evacuate to a more dangerous place."
Civilians in regime-controlled areas, meanwhile, are facing the impending election season with a mixture of stoicism and humor.
"He who doesn't go to elect will lose his salary and job, with greetings from the protectors of the Syrian people. He who goes to elect will be bombed with gas canisters, with greetings from the liberators of the Syrian people," wrote Alaa, administrator of the Aleppo Pulse community page on Facebook.
Despite consensus on the pro forma nature of the election, at least one candidate is taking the process seriously. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Nouri magnanimously declared he would offer Assad the post of defense minister in the unlikely event the first-time contender secures a win.
No such offer was made by Hajjar.
Bulos is a special correspondent