Syria Offers a New Charter as Battles in Cities Continue
BEIRUT, Lebanon —As fighting churned on in major cities Sunday,Syria held a referendum on a new constitution, an offer of reform that critics dismissed as too little too late and Western leaders labeled a farce.
Continued attacks by government forces, which killed dozens on Sunday, and the absence of outside observers also raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote.
“We have an election in a state living through a war?” said Arif Dalila, a prominent dissident who has served prison terms for criticizing the lack of democracy in Syria. “Who will participate in this referendum? Who will monitor the results? Who will trust the numbers emerging from this referendum?”
Some polling places appeared utterly deserted, while at others opinion was divided.
But state television broadcast a relentless barrage of public support for the new constitution with an endless number of voters hailing the document for ushering in an era of freedom and democracy. Some of them suggested that voters should take part as a mark of “steadfastness” in the face of the nearly year-old insurrection, which the government of President Bashar al-Assad calls a foreign plot to destabilize the country.
In the southern Damascus district of Ma’adamiah, where there was a heavy security presence on the streets and shops were shuttered, no voters appeared until about 1 p.m., and most were municipal workers. Others scoffed.
“The Assad regime is arresting hundreds of our sons and brothers, has killed and injured hundreds, so we don’t care about this constitution,” said Ziad, 25, who gave only his first name out of fear of retribution. “Syrians will write their real constitution after we finish this regime.”
In downtown Damascus, where there were marginally more voters, Hala, a 36-year-old woman from the same Alawite clan as the president and the wife of a soldier, said she was voting for a “new Syria.”
“This new constitution will shift Syria into the ranks of the democratic countries,” she said.
Opposition organizations broadcast videos that seemed to show demonstrations throughout the country against the vote. Videos on YouTube showed tire burnings; a poster saying, “We step on the new constitution;” and people chanting, “Down with Bashar al-Assad.”
One spoof ballot was marked by a sheep hoofprint on the “yes” side, while a video from Aleppo showed a giant trash container labeled REFERENDUM and people pointedly dumping their garbage into it.
The Local Coordination Committees, an antigovernment group, said that attacks by government soldiers killed 55 people on Sunday, most of them in the besieged city of Homs. The violence prevented voting there, and in several Damascus suburbs the government moved to stamp out anti-referendum protests, the group said.
The new constitution is the cornerstone of Mr. Assad’s stated plan to address the antigovernment protests that have convulsed the country since last March. Mr. Assad has spoken of constitutional reforms since at least June, but the document put up for a vote on Sunday was not made public until a couple of weeks ago.
The referendum was rushed to a vote in an apparent attempt to counter the rising domestic violence and to provide cover for allies like Russia and China, who have objected to any outside intervention, saying that government reform efforts must be given a chance.
The document’s most important changes include ending the political monopoly of the Baath Party and introducing presidential term limits.
Those changes come with giant caveats, however. The president would be limited to two terms of seven years each, but the clock would only start when Mr. Assad’s current term expires in 2014, allowing him to serve two more terms and potentially rule until he was 62, a total of 28 years in office. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled for 30 years until his death in 2000 at age 69.
The new constitution also includes provisions apparently intended to block the political opposition from entering politics or winning the presidency. It requires candidates to have lived in Syria for 10 successive years and not have a foreign-born wife, and it prohibits parties based on religion or ethnicity, which would bar groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or representatives of the Kurdish minority from participating.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who joined delegates from 60 countries and organizations meeting in Tunis last week to call for Mr. Assad’s ouster, dismissed the vote as an empty gesture.
“It’s a phony referendum that is going to be used by Assad to justify what he is doing to other Syrians,” she said in an interview with CBS News from Morocco. “So it’s a cynical ploy to say the least.”
The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, called the referendum “nothing more than a farce,” adding, “Sham votes cannot be a contribution to a resolution of the crisis.”
Russia and China endorsed the referendum process and accused participants in the Tunis conference of promoting war.
Mr. Assad and his wife, Asma, showed up late at a polling station in the state-run broadcast center in Damascus, the capital, beaming as they pushed their way through crowds of cheering public employees. In his remarks there, the president did not address the constitution directly, but suggested that foreign news reports of events in Syria did not reflect reality.
Given the history of elections in Syria — Mr. Assad won more than 97 percent of the vote in the two previous referendums on his presidency in 2000 and 2007, when his name alone was on the ballot — some Syrians saw no reason to vote.
“It is stupidity today to say no for this nonsense,” said a 32-year-old businessman in Damascus, reached via Skype, who declined to give his name out of fear of retribution. “The result will be like 75 or 80 approval.”
Critics also said that a constitution itself means little in a region rife with such documents that promise freedoms and which are routinely ignored. The deaths of thousands of people in the government’s violent response to the uprising, now verging on civil war, have also hardened much of the opposition to reject any offer short of Mr. Assad’s departure.
“It is going to be very hard to convince people there is something serious behind it,” said Bassma Kodmani, a member of the executive committee of the Syrian National Council, the opposition umbrella organization. “It is not going to work because the repression is continuing. They are caught up in this cycle, and it is simply too late.”
There was no progress Sunday in getting the government to allow the evacuation of two wounded foreign correspondents and the bodies of two others who had been killed in an attack on the besieged neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs last Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on its Web site.
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