May 17, 2007 / 3:22 PM / 12 years ago

Syria's opposition boycotts vote on Assad

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria’s main domestic opposition alliance announced on Thursday it will boycott a referendum set to re-elect President Bashar al-Assad, saying another term offers little hope for democratic reforms.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivers a speech at parliament in Damascus May 10, 2007. Syria's main domestic opposition alliance announced on Thursday it will boycott a referendum set to re-elect Assad, saying another term offers little hope for democratic reforms. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

“The president has hinted at change but this totalitarian system does not change in any way that could lead to political reform,” Hassan Abdel Azim, a leader of the Damascus Declaration group, told Reuters.

“It has been seven years with no serious action taken to put Syria on a democratic course. The Damascus Declaration condemns this policy and boycotts the referendum,” Abdel Azim said.

The declaration was signed two years ago by liberal parties who formed an alliance to unify their demands for a democratic constitution and the lifting of emergency law and curbs on public freedoms.

Assad was unanimously chosen last week by the Baathist dominated parliament for a second seven-year term. The 41-year president was the only candidate allowed to run.

Abdel Azim said the opposition, which is not recognized by the government, has tried to convince it to open the electoral system gradually.

Several figures in the Damascus Declaration have been jailed. The other main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, operates in exile and includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which waged a failed revolt against the government in the 1980s.


“What we got was parliamentary elections of one color and a presidential poll for the Baath Party’s candidate only. The authorities continue to ignore the social, cultural and political changes in Syria, the region and the world,” he said.

Parliament, called the “Council of the People”, was elected in a tightly controlled poll last month. It set May 27 as date for a presidential referendum.

Assad won 97.29 percent of the vote when he succeeded his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000 and kept almost intact a system that bans opposition and gives the Baath Party, which has ruled Syria for four decades, a monopoly on power.

The Baath’s leadership discussed at an annual conference two years ago allowing other parties but the proposal was ignored at subsequent meetings.

Assad has made it clear that his priority was to enable Syria to withstand increasing pressure from the United States. Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, mainly for its support for the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.

Abdel Azim said the way to counter Western attempts to isolate Syria was to change the political system and stop a campaign of arrests against dissidents that intensified last year.

“Syria has been always under foreign threats but you don’t confront them by clamping down,” he said. “You open up the system and win a real national unity.”

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