CAIRO— As expected, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won a third seven-year term in office, with a reported 89 percent of the vote. Voting took place Tuesday in parts of Syria controlled by the government, but was boycotted by opposition groups in areas they control. Officials say voter turnout was 73 percent.
But even as Damascus erupted in celebration, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Union sharply criticized the election. Kerry called the poll "a great big zero,'' saying it can't be considered fair "because you can't have an election where millions of your people don't even have an ability to vote.''
The government has sought to present this vote as a democratic solution to Syria's three-year conflict.
Election observers from several countries, including Syria's allies Iran, Russia and Venezuela, told Syrian TV that voting at polling stations that they monitored appeared to go smoothly. Most of the observers expressed support for the government and President Bashar al-Assad.
At a polling station in the coastal government stronghold of Latakiya, an election official told state TV that ballot boxes were still waiting to be counted, but that he expected votes to be tabulated within the next 24 hours. He said voting had been heavy, despite unsettled conditions in the country.
He said that he was struck by the enthusiasm of the many refugees from other parts of Syria who turned out to vote in even stronger numbers than local residents.
Al-Arabiya TV, which supports the Syrian opposition, claimed that the government had flown supporters from outside the country to vote and had given money or favors in exchange for a ballot in President Assad's favor. It was impossible, however, for VOA to confirm the claim.
Ala'edin Boroujerdi, who headed an Iranian parliamentary delegation, told a group of visiting legislators that many Syrian expatriates had not been allowed to cast their ballots in certain European and Gulf states. This, he argued, was an “unfair breach of their human rights.”
Middle East scholar Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House in London told VOA that while the Western press has been calling the Syrian presidential election a “sham,” many Syrians still living inside the country must feel that it was the West that has perpetrated a sham.
"If you're looking at the elections in Syria from the West, they look like a sham, but if you're looking at the West from Syria, it's Western policy that looks like a sham, because Syrians were expecting that the international community would protect them from Assad and would prevent him from crushing the revolt, so they feel let down,” said Shehadi.
Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told U.S. television broadcaster PBS Tuesday that “efforts [the U.S. and other nations] have made to date have not worked... [because] they have not put enough pressure on the Assad regime on the ground.”
That, Ford concluded, is why the regime “balked” at a political settlement during a Geneva peace conference last February.