BEIRUT — The Syrian government called Monday for voters to turn out for local elections that it portrayed as good-faith reform efforts, but activists said that most citizens, observing a second day of a general strike, rejected the polls as irrelevant to a country in such turmoil.
Opposition groups reported at least 18 deaths in clashes between security forces and army defectors in several regions, and the U.N. human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said the death toll now exceeded 5,000.
Pillay briefed the Security Council on Syria and then told reporters that at least 300 children were among the dead, according to The Associated Press. She noted that the death toll had been just 2,000 in August.
Syria’s prime minister, Adel Safar, called on Syrians to cast their ballots to “stand together to save our country from the conspiracies against us,” and the government reported that the turnout was good and that voting was “proceeding in a democratic spirit.”
However, activists said that turnout was high only among those who support the government of President Bashar Assad, with most Syrians abstaining from voting. In some areas, they said, residents were forced to head to polling stations.
“Homs is on strike, and around 90 percent of the people did not participate in the elections,” said Salim Qabbani from the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group in Syria. “It’s only the regime supporters who participated, so there was basically no elections in Homs.”
Authorities said the elections were part of a reform package that Assad announced earlier this year and would lead to parliamentary elections and constitutional amendments next fall.
However, critics said that these elections would have little significance because municipal councils have no major power in the government, whose domination by the Baath Party is enshrined in the constitution.
The government also denied that the general strike was being observed. The state news agency said that the strike was a failure and published an eight-page report to prove it, along with several pictures showing open shops and busy markets.
“The markets in Syrian provinces had normal movement yesterday,” the report said. It added that the ordinary workday came “despite incitement by foreign-linked terrorist groups to stop economic and social activity.”
However, activists from the Local Coordination Committees and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as residents reached by phone in Damascus, Homs, in central Syria, and Daraa in southern Syria, among others, said that shops were closed and some schools did not open Monday.
“It seems that the strike was successful this time,” said a 29-year-old resident of Damascus. “It was the talk of the town.”