News / Middle East

Syrians Vote on New Constitution as Death Toll Mounts

A Syrian woman displays her ballot at a polling station during a referendum on the new constitution, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, February 26, 2012.
A Syrian woman displays her ballot at a polling station during a referendum on the new constitution, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, February 26, 2012.

The Syrian government held a referendum Sunday on a new constitution, as it continued a military offensive that has left scores of people dead across the country.  Witnesses say government forces are attacking a number of places with artillery, rockets, mortars and tanks shells in a bid to crush a growing opposition movement.  

Witnesses say dozens of people were killed or wounded as Syrian government forces shelled towns and villages across the country for the 23rd day.  The besieged district of Baba Amr in Homs was the most badly hit, while districts and suburbs of Deir ez Zor, Daraa, Idlib and Hama were also targeted.

The offensive took place as the government conducted a nationwide referendum on a new constitution - the show-piece of a series of reforms promised by President Bashar al-Assad.

The new document will allow new political parties to form, as long as they are not ethnic or sectarian.  It also sets a presidential term limit of two seven-year terms.  But the limit would not be retroactive, meaning that Mr. Assad, in power 11 years, could serve another two terms after his current one expires in 2014.

Syrian state television showed Mr. Assad and his wife Asma voting in Damascus.  He defended the reporting of the state TV, insisting it was “telling the facts,” while Arab satellite channels were “distorting reality."

State television showed citizens turning out to vote at dozens of polling stations across the country and insisted the turnout was heavy. The head of a polling station in central Damascus said many people had come.

Hundreds of people were interviewed by state TV, and each of them expressed support for the new constitution.  

In contrast, Arab satellite channels interviewed dozens of people in opposition-controlled areas, and all of them complained that the referendum had little or no meaning.  Opposition videos showed people casting votes into trash cans, and others burning their ballots.

Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group, says the new constitution would have been a major reform one year ago. “The regime behaves as if nothing happened between April 2011 and February 2012, as if whole segments of this society had not mobilized and had not been radicalized by the violence, as if the economy had not collapsed, as if the president had not lost the trust of a large part of this society, as if the security services were no a problem.  Nothing in the constitutional reform even starts to address the two issues which are seen as central by many Syrians, which are unaccountable family rule and the behavior of the security services," he said.

Harling adds that the authorities can continue to “crush entire neighborhoods” militarily, but that such violence only further alienates sections of society.

Analyst Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House in London says the Syrian government is trying to strengthen its weakening hand, both with its apparent reforms and its attempts to portray the opposition as terrorists.

"The regime relies on de-legitimizing the opposition, because the opposition says that it is non-violent, that's it's non-sectarian, that it is going to move towards democracy in Syria, which is inclusive, and what the regime is saying is that these are al-Qaida sectarian terrorists and that this is the beginning of a civil war," he said.

Shehadi argues that many Western leaders are inadvertently strengthening the regime's hand by “making statements that endorse its narrative” of fighting terrorism, at the expense of the opposition's narrative that it is “peaceful and non-violent.”

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