BEIRUT — The Syrian government announced Monday that President Bashar Assad will compete in a presidential election scheduled for June 3 that is widely seen as an attempt to enhance his perceived legitimacy despite a raging civil war that has pushed his government out of much of the country and displaced millions of citizens.
Although recent legal changes mean that Assad will run opposed for the first time since he took over from his father, Hafez Assad, in 2000, his victory is considered a foregone conclusion, and most expect it will do nothing to stop the war.
The Syrian election comes amid a series of votes across the Arab world that — despite purporting to show democracy in action — indicate how little the protest movements known collectively as the Arab Spring have affected the region’s traditional power structures.
Egypt has engaged in a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in the run-up to a vote that will almost surely name Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former defense minister, president. Algeria on Monday witnessed the swearing in of its ailing, septuagenarian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. In Syria, election preparations have highlighted the yawning gaps between the supporters of Assad’s government, who say he is fighting a necessary war against foreign-backed extremists, and the opposition, which considers him a brutal dictator who must be overthrown.
The news barely made a ripple in opposition areas.
“What do you think of this criminal and killer who wants to dress up in a new outfit and say, ‘I’m the legitimate president?’” said Tamam Hazim, an anti-government activist reached through Skype in Aleppo, where he said his home had recently been destroyed by a bomb dropped from a government helicopter.
Speaking of Assad, he cited an Arabic proverb: “He has destroyed it and is sitting on the ruins.”
The lack of reliable polling inside the country makes it impossible to gauge how much support Assad has, although many Syrians have stuck by him, seeing him as a symbol of the nation or fearing that an opposition victory could lead to Islamist rule. The Syrian National Coalition, the group of Syrian exiles that purports to lead the uprising, has failed to gather significant support inside the country and has called the vote a farce.
The Syrian government has given no indication of how it will gather votes from the millions of Syrians who have sought refuge from the violence in neighboring countries, other than saying Syrian expatriates can vote in their embassies. Nor has it explained how it will organize voting in areas controlled by armed rebel groups. Instead, the state news media has focused on the strict formality of the process.
The other six people who have announced their intention to run include businessmen, former ministers, members of Parliament and one woman. None have made any public statements about the policies they would pursue nor implied that they would lead the country better than Assad.