DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has won a second seven-year term in office after netting more than 97 percent of the vote in a referendum, the interior minister announced on Tuesday.
Opposition groups had called for a boycott of the no-contest referendum in which Assad was the sole candidate.
Bassam Abdel Majid told a televised press conference that Assad, 41, won a massive 97.62 percent of the vote in Sunday’s referendum, with more than 11 million Syrians responding “yes”.
“No” voters numbered 19,653, while almost 253,000 votes were void, Abdel Majid said. About 12 million Syrians were eligible to vote.
In July 2000, Assad was again the sole candidate to succeed his father Hafez who had died the previous month. The official result then showed that Bashar received 97.29 percent.
“The last few years have demonstrated the competence of President Assad in managing events while remaining faithful to national causes,” the interior ministry said, in reference to US pressures on Damascus over Lebanon and Iraq.
“Syria has undergone all sorts of pressure to renounce its national stand but it has remained true to its positions, allowing it to overcome challenges,” Abdel Majid said.
“A series of laws have been passed in favour of judicial, administrative and economic reforms paving the way for good economic growth,” he said. “Improving the standard of living of Syrians has been a priority.”
Abdel Majid said he would submit the referendum results to the speaker of parliament, Mahmud al-Abrash, for the house to declare Assad president for another seven years.
With parliament having unanimously approved Assad’s candidature and with vocal opponents of the regime locked up, the result was never in doubt.
While the authorities focused the campaign on stability in a region awash with bloodshed, the one tolerated opposition grouping has no legal status and was unable to field candidates.
In private, a Syrian called Alaa said on Sunday there was no point in voting. “I’m not going to vote because Bashar doesn’t need my vote to get a 100 percent yes,” he said.
Abdul Majid has said turnout was “massive” but gave no details.
With Syria under emergency law since the Baath party came to power in 1963 and opposition parties banned, authorities have clamped down on pro-democracy activists, drawing criticism from Washington and the European Union.
Kamal Labwani, accused of contacts with the United States, was sentenced to 12 years in jail, the harshest sentence since Bashar al-Assad took power.
The latter years of Assad’s first term were marked by deteriorating relations with the United States which in 2004 imposed economic sanctions on Damascus, which Washington accuses of trying to destabilise Iraq and Lebanon.
Assad has also faced heavy international pressure after the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in Beirut, which was then under Syrian control.
That pressure led to Damascus pulling its troops out of Lebanon in April 2005 after a 29-year presence.
Domestically, anticipated political reforms — a law allowing different political parties, liberalisation of the press, and electoral reform — remain stillborn, although economic reforms have made some progress.
Syria forecasts economic growth of around seven percent for 2007, up from 5.1 percent in 2006, Economy Minister Amer Lutfi said in state newspapers on voting day.