DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrians began voting Sunday on a new draft constitution aimed at quelling the country’s uprising by ending the ruling Baath Party’s five-decade domination of power, but the opposition announced a boycott and clashes were reported across the country.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and the vote is scheduled to last 12 hours. The country has 14.6 million eligible voters who were asked to cast ballots on whether they approve or reject the recently drafted constitution in more than 14,000 polling stations around the country.
In regions like the restive central city of Homs, where shelling by government forces has left hundreds dead, or the northwestern province of Idlib and the southern region of Daraa where rebels clash frequently with the security forces, turnout is likely to be minimal.
Earlier this month, President Bashar Assad called for a referendum on the new constitution — which allows for at least a theoretical opening of the country’s political system — as an effort to placate critics and end the 11-month uprising against his rule.
The new charter would create a multiparty system in Syria, which has been ruled by the Arab Socialist Baath Party since a 1963 coup. It also states that the president, who has been a member of the Assad family since 1970, can only be in office for a maximum of two seven-year terms.
Such changes were unthinkable a year ago, but after the uprising began in March and Assad’s crackdown that killed thousands of people, the vast majority of opposition groups say they accept nothing less than Assad abandoning power.
“I am boycotting the vote,” Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press by telephone. He added that in Syria such laws have no value — Assad’s government revoked the country’s official state of emergency in April but the crackdown only intensified.
In the capital Damascus, where Assad retains support among religious minorities and the business class, many said they were eager to vote.
“This is a good constitution. It calls for party pluralism and the president can only hold the post for two terms. These did not exist in the past,” said civil servant Mohammed Diab, 40, as he waited with four other people outside a polling station in the posh Damascus neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh.
Jaafar Naami, 28, who works for a private insurance company, said, “I am here to say yes for the new constitution. This is not the time to say no. People should unite”
Posters around the capital Damascus urged people to vote. “Don’t turn your back on voting,” one said.
Another — showing the red, black and white Syrian flag — touted the new constitution. “Syria’s constitution: Freedom of belief,” it said, referring to clauses protecting religious minorities.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least two people were killed Sunday in the southern province of Daraa, where the anti-Assad uprising began in March.
The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, reported violence in several areas including Idlib, Homs, and the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. The LCC said regime forces shelled the northwestern city of Idlib with tanks.