BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrians vote in a referendum on Sunday on a new constitution which President Bashar al-Assad, fighting an 11-month-old revolt against his rule, says will pave the way for a multi-party parliamentary election within three months.
Assad insists he is committed to reforms in a country ruled by his family for four decades, but has also vowed to crush a rebellion he blames on foreign-backed terrorists.
Thousands of people have been killed in the crackdown on protests.
Syria’s opposition dismisses Assad’s reform pledges as too little, too late, saying the 46-year-old leader must step down to end the bloodshed. It has called for a boycott of the vote.
Authorities say 14.6 million of Syria’s 23 million people are eligible to vote. But with parts of the country in open rebellion, an army onslaught on the third largest city - Homs - and areas of the north outside state control for months, it is unclear how a nationwide poll can be conducted.
Here are some of the main points of the new constitution:
The new constitution drops a clause which effectively granted Assad’s Baath Party a monopoly on power by styling it as the “leading party in the society and the state.”
Several new parties have already been licensed, but the new text forbids political activity or parties based on “religious, sectarian, tribal (or) regional” basis, which would prevent the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood registering, and also restrict parties representing minority Kurds.
Real power remains with the president, who “lays down the general policy of the state and oversees its implementation,” can declare war or a state of emergency, can draft laws and assumes legislative authority when parliament is not sitting.
The president is limited to two seven-year terms. Assad’s second term expires in 2014. However, another clause in the constitution says laws will not apply retro-actively, implying Assad could serve another two terms until 2028.
The new constitution allows for a contested presidential election, rather than a vote to approve a single candidate. The seven presidential elections since 1971 had only had one name on the ballot paper: Assad - first Hafez and then his son Bashar.
Bashar gained more than 97 percent approval in 2000 and 2007 in polls which diplomats said were marred by fraud.
A presidential hopeful must have the support of 35 members of parliament and must be at least 40-years-old, a requirement which was circumvented when the 34-year-old Bashar inherited power on his father’s death in 2000.
The president must have lived in Syria for 10 years, a requirement which would rule out many of Assad’s opponents who have lived in exile for years.
The state respects all religions, but the constitution retains a requirement for the president to be a Muslim and says Islamic law is a major source of legislation - alienating minority Christians, many of whom have steered clear so far of the predominantly Sunni Muslim revolt against Assad.
The new constitution drops a clause which describes Syria as a “planned socialist economy.” Instead, the economy “shall be based on the principle of developing public and private economic activity through economic and social plans aiming at increasing the national income, developing production, raising the individual’s living standards and creating jobs.”
Syria’s current constitution, dating back to 1973, describes freedom as a “sacred right,” forbids torture, guarantees freedom of the press and says Syrians have the right to demonstrate peacefully.
Assad’s opponents say those guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on, pointing to reports by rights groups of widespread and arbitrary detention, torture and killings in detention, as well as shootings at unarmed protesters during the 11-month-old uprising against the Syrian leader.
The text of the new constitution can be found here
Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sophie Hares