DAMASCUS Syria's government said voters turned out in large numbers on Monday for a parliamentary election it sees as central to its reform program, but opposition supporters denounced the exercise as a sham and reported more fighting between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
In Washington, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the unrelenting bloodshed "totally unacceptable and intolerable."
Ban said it was a priority for the United Nations to deploy a mission to supervise a ceasefire as soon as possible and he called on all factions to stop the violence.
The chairman of Syria's Higher Committee for Elections, Khalaf al-Azzawi, said on state television that voting was proceeding "normally and quietly" across the country, which has been gripped for 14 months by the uprising against Assad's rule.
State news agency SANA reported a big turn-out. Witnesses in Damascus said voting appeared to be patchy.
In one polling station, authorities said 137 people voted in the first three hours while foreign journalists saw only three cast ballots there over 40 minutes.
"All of this is a theatre show. The candidates are businessmen and pawns of strong people in power," one man, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters near a polling station in the capital.
A shopkeeper across the road from the booth, said at first that the weather was too hot to vote. When pressed, he added: "I just want to say: with all this blood, what do you think will fix it? Elections? No."
Some of those who did vote said they saw it as a chance to end the crisis, in which 9,000 people have been killed by Assad's forces, according to the United Nations. The government says 2,600 security personnel have been killed by opposition forces.
Reem al-Homsi, a recent university graduate, said she voted because she wants what is best for her country.
"I want a normal life and I want a job," she said.
State television aired footage from polling centers across the country, showing people ticking boxes on ballot papers. But despite heavy media coverage in recent days, there has been little discussion of candidate policies or political leanings.
A 24-year-old man working for one candidate said that after four years of unemployment, he was just doing a job.
"I am here representing this businessman so I can take 3,000 lira ($50) home at the end of the day and go," he said. "I hope this parliament will be able to provide me a job. Although, honestly, I am not confident."
One elderly woman first claimed that she voted, seemingly fearing retribution for not participating in the government-led initiative. She later added: "Nobody wants to vote. Nobody."
BOYCOTTING THE VOTE
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes between rebels and soldiers in the northern provinces, rebellious Hama city, and around the capital on Monday,
In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, three dissidents were killed in a dawn raid by government troops and three others were killed by snipers on rooftops, the pro-opposition Observatory said.
The violence underlined the challenge of holding a credible poll and further complicates the task of U.N. observers monitoring a shaky ceasefire declared on April 12.
Assad dismisses the pro-democracy uprising as the work of foreign-backed "terrorists" and, counting on the diplomatic support of longtime ally Russia, says he will carry out his own reforms. But the ferocity of the crackdown has appalled people across the globe and many foreign governments have urged him to step down.
Since succeeding his father Hafez al-Assad in 2000, Assad has relied on a pliant parliament to rubber-stamp the will of his inner circle in the majority Sunni Muslim country.
The assembly currently does not have a single opposition member and official media said half the seats would be reserved for "representatives of workers and peasants," whose unions are controlled by the ruling Baath Party.
Opposition figures are boycotting the vote, saying Syria's revised constitution, which allowed new political parties to be set up, has changed nothing.
Activist Musaab al-Hamadee said people were striking in Hama - a city with a bloody history of opposition to the Assads - and that activists were burning tyres in the streets.
In Qalaat al-Madeeq, a village in Hama province, video which activists say was filmed on Monday showed the streets completely deserted and shops shuttered.
"Today is the Syrian parliamentary poll and we say to you Bashar al-Assad that there are no people in Qalaat al-Madeeq voting. You've displaced people and killed women and children. We are on strike," a man filming in Hama said off-camera.
Louay Hussein, a centrist activist who heads the Movement for Building a State, said the elections were "window-dressing" and would not shift the balance of power in Syria.
"It does not matter who votes. It is a forged election -against the will of Syrians with no popular participation. The Syrian parliament has no authority over a single intelligence officer. It has no power in the country at all," he said.
Authorities say 14 million people are eligible to vote in the election for the 250-seat parliament.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Angus MacSwan)