BEIRUT — As fighting churned on in major cities on Sunday, Syria held a referendum on a new constitution, an offer of reform that critics have dismissed as too little too late and Western leaders called a farce.
The continued attacks by government forces, which killed dozens on Sunday, and the lack of outside observers also raised questions about the legitimacy of the vote.
“We have an election in a state living through a war?” said Arif Dalila, a prominent dissident who has served prison terms for criticizing the lack of democracy in Syria. “Who will participate in this referendum? Who will monitor the results? Who will trust the numbers emerging from this referendum?”
Some polling places appeared utterly deserted, while at others opinion was divided.
But state television broadcast a relentless barrage of public support for the new constitution with an endless number of voters hailing the document for ushering in an era of freedom and democracy. Some of them suggested that voters should take part in the election to show their “steadfastness” in the face of the nearly year-old insurrection, which the government of President Bashar Assad calls a foreign plot to destabilize the country.
In the southern Damascus district of Ma’adamiah, where there was a heavy security presence on the streets and shops were shuttered, no voters appeared until about 1 p.m., and most were municipal workers. Others scoffed.
“The Assad regime is arresting hundreds of our sons and brothers, has killed and injured hundreds, so we don’t care about this constitution,” said Ziad, 25, who gave only his first name out of fear of retribution. “Syrians will write their real constitution after we finish this regime.”
In downtown Damascus, where there were marginally more voters, Hala, a 36-year-old woman from the same Alawite clan as the president and the wife of a soldier, said she was voting for a “new Syria.”
“This new constitution will shift Syria into the ranks of the democratic countries,” she said.
Opposition organizations broadcast videos that seemed to show demonstrations throughout the country against the vote. Videos posted on YouTube showed tire burnings, a poster saying “We step on the new constitution,” and people chanting “Down with Bashar al-Assad.”
One spoof ballot was marked by a sheep hoofprint on the “yes” side, while a video from Aleppo showed a giant trash container labeled REFERENDUM and people pointedly dumping their garbage into it.
The Local Coordination Committees, an antigovernment group, said that attacks by government soldiers killed 55 people on Sunday, most of them in the besieged city of Homs. The violence prevented voting there, and in several Damascus suburbs government thugs were unleashed to stamp out anti-referendum protests, the group said.
The new constitution is the cornerstone of Assad’s plan to address the anti-government protests that have convulsed the country since last March.