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It's Election Day In Syria. The Outcome Is All But Guaranteed

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, authoritarian governments around the world embrace the forms of democracy, even when they don't manage the substance. Today is Election Day in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad is on the ballot, but his regime does not tolerate real opposition. These elections do show who's in charge. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is here to discuss how it works. Hey there, Ruth.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: OK, so we have this war-torn country. What does the election look like there?

SHERLOCK: Well, in Damascus, there's these huge posters of President Assad all over the place. You know, there's been dinners and dances held to support his election. And lots of these have been held by businessmen and others who see this as a chance to kind of ingratiate themselves with a regime that controls every part of life in Syria, Steve. I spoke last night to a Syrian businessman in Damascus. Syria doesn't allow free speech. Rights groups have shown that, which is part of the reason why this person doesn't want to be named.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: People inside Syria right now believe that the best solution for them is the current president. So you will see a lot of people, they want this election to be done. And let's start focusing on building a better Syria.

SHERLOCK: And, you know, this does reflect the views of a lot of people there now. Syria's economy has been destroyed. So many people's lives have been wrecked in the war. People just want stability, even if that means keeping the regime.

INSKEEP: It's revealing, I suppose, that someone can't give their name even to tell you that they're voting for Bashar al-Assad. How much trouble do actual people in the opposition get in?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, the regime still imprisons and tortures people. Assad does have opposition in this election. He is up against two candidates. One is seen as being pro-government. The other is part of the kind of officially sanctioned - regime-sanctioned opposition. And the issue here, though, is that regardless of how legitimate a candidate might be, they've only been given 10 days to campaign. So hardly anyone knows who they are. Danny Makki is a Syrian British journalist and analyst in Damascus. And he tells me these candidates haven't had the funds or time to mount any kind of challenge.

DANNY MAKKI: Those Syrians who've chosen to remain in the country, either through lack of opportunity or through loyalty to the government, you know, they're going to vote for Assad anyway because there's no real alternative.

SHERLOCK: The Assad family has ruled Syria with this iron grip for five decades. This election is really more about Syrians showing fealty to this authoritarian regime. And, you know, another big problem here is that it's excluding the millions of Syrians who live in areas that are still under opposition control. That's about a third of the country.

INSKEEP: Can you just talk us through the thought process of an authoritarian regime in holding an election with rules that it's just so obvious that it's not really an election?

SHERLOCK: Well, this is actually a really important day for the Syrian government because it demonstrates its power. So, you know, you have areas like Duma and Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, which supported the opposition in the war. They were placed under siege by the government, hit with airstrikes, even reported chemical attacks. And now they have posters of President Assad up. So it's an important moment to project power to its own people. And even though Western countries have dismissed these elections as a sham, the government is hoping that it can project legitimacy in the region and maybe get some regional countries like Saudi Arabia, which has opposed the regime in the war, to reopen their embassies there. This is not going to solve Syria's underlying problems. The economy is in real crisis, and the war in some parts of the country continue.

INSKEEP: Ruth, thanks for the insights.

SHERLOCK: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock reporting from Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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