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Few Voters Turn Out for Syrian Parliamentary Election

Syrian voters are going to the polls Sunday and Monday to elect a new parliament. But widespread apathy appeared to keep turnout low, as was widely expected. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Turnout appeared to be low on the first day of voting, with only a trickle of voters arriving at polling stations.

Opposition parties are boycotting the poll, but that is not seen as the major reason voters were staying home. Simple apathy is regarded as the bigger culprit, with few Syrians seeing this as an election that will make any difference.

The Syrian parliament does not actually write or even modify legislation, it simply debates and ratifies decisions made by the cabinet. Of the 250 seats in the assembly, about two-thirds are reserved for the governing coalition, known as the National Progressive Front, which consists of the ruling Baath party and a handful of smaller allies.

That means that the only real competition on election day is among independent candidates, mostly businessmen with close ties to the ruling party - for the remaining third of the seats. All of those candidates must be approved by the authorities in order to get onto the ballots.

Omayma Abdel Latif, an Egyptian journalist and the projects coordinator for the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut, who recently returned from Damascus and says there was little enthusiasm on the streets for the vote.

"The average Syrians are basically very much burdened with economic hardships, and trying to make ends meet," said Omayma Abdel Latif. "Elections, there is a popular apathy, of course, because they know that at the end of the day it is not going to sort of make a difference. For them to care about their economic situation is much more important than to care about an election that is not going to change the status quo at all."

Syrian officials have angrily rejected criticism of their electoral process from the State Department, which called the vote meaningless. But during the election campaign Abdel Latif said, she was intrigued to see a small window open for domestic criticism of the electoral system.

The state-run newspapers have carried a number of articles and editorial cartoons criticizing the independent candidates' empty campaign promises and failure to put forward detailed political programs.

"For the first time in elections in Syria, we are seeing a debate that is being initiated by the state-run newspapers that is sort of questioning the lack of any serious platform on the part of the independent candidates," she continued. "Hopefully that kind of questioning will lead the Syrian electorate to also question the lack of any serious platform on the part of the alliance itself, and to begin questioning the whole process."

Voting continues Monday, with results expected Tuesday or Wednesday. One of the first tasks of the new parliament will be approving the Baath Party nomination for the re-election of President Bashar Assad.