DAMASCUS - Syrians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory to President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of a civil war that has fractured the country and killed more than 160,000 people.
Assad's opponents including rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers and Gulf Arabs have dismissed the election as a charade, saying no credible vote can be held in a country where wide swathes of territory are outside state control and millions of people have been displaced.
Insurgents battling to overthrow Assad stepped up attacks in government-controlled areas in the buildup to the election, seeking to disrupt the vote.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) in parts of Syria where Assad continues to rule and state television broadcast footage of people queuing to cast their votes in several cities. "We hope for security and stability," said Hussam al-Din al Aws, an Arabic teacher who was the first person to vote at a polling station at a Damascus secondary school. Asked who would win, he responded: "God willing, President Bashar al-Assad." Assad is running against two relatively unknown challengers who were approved by a parliament packed with his supporters, the first time in half a century that Syrians have been offered any choice of candidates.
The last seven presidential votes were referenda to approve Bashar or his father, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez never scored less than 99 per cent, while his son got 97.6 per cent seven years ago.
Neither of Assad's rivals, former minister Hassan al-Nouri or parliamentarian Maher Hajjar, is expected to make major inroads into those levels of support.