Syria’s presidential campaign has kicked off in earnest with candidates able to submit their applications during the last 10 days of April, according to Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi.
The minister also insisted that the elections would proceed on time, despite a raging civil war that has killed more than 150,000 people.
“The door for candidacy will open in the last 10 days of this month,” state news agency SANA quoted Zoubi as saying in an interview with Al-Manar late Monday.
“The overwhelming majority of Syrians are pressing and calling for President Bashar Assad to continue to lead the country as president of the republic,” he said.
Zoubi insisted that the elections, due to be held before June, would proceed on schedule.
The elections “will be held on time ... and we will not allow them to be delayed for any reason, whether security, military, political, internal or external,” he said.
Zoubi also denied that there was any contradiction between staging the vote and ongoing efforts to hold peace talks, despite criticism by U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The mediator said last month that holding elections would likely endanger peacemaking efforts that have so far resulted in two rounds of talks in Switzerland but no concrete steps forward.
“The presidential election does not contradict the contents of the Geneva statement,” Zoubi said, referring to a document produced after a first round of talks in Geneva in 2012.
The document called for a political transition in Syria but made no mention of the role of Assad, who the opposition insists must step aside.
“Any talk of a conflict is political, resulting from a failure to read the document,” Zoubi added.
Opponents say running for re-election would destroy any chance of a political settlement and prolong violence, which has also displaced 9 million people.
“For those who need confirmation that the Assad regime is not interested in the Geneva negotiating process this would be it,” said Frederic Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East in Washington. He predicted another win for Assad in “the high 90s.”
The constitution adopted in 2012 for the first time opens the door for candidates to challenge Assad in the election. But a law adopted by parliament this year requires candidates to have lived in Syria for the past 10 years, thereby excluding the exiled opposition figures.
And it remains unclear how an election can be held in the middle of a war that has also displaced an estimated 40 percent of Syrians from their homes.
In power since succeeding his father Hafez in 2000, Assad’s second seven-year term ends on July 17. He won a seven-year term in 2007 with 98 percent of the vote, as the only candidate.
“We don’t want President Assad to hesitate for one second about standing,” Safwan al-Qodsi, whose Arab Socialist Union Party is allied with Assad’s Baath party, said by phone from Damascus. “Our conviction can be summed up in one sentence: There’s no one else other than Bashar Assad.”
Asked in January if he would run, Assad told Agence France-Presse that he could see “no reason why I shouldn’t stand.” And if “there is public desire and a public opinion in favor of my candidacy, I will not hesitate for a second to run for election,” he added.
Robert Ford, who recently stepped down as U.S. envoy to Syria, said on March 20 that Assad was not likely to go away anytime soon. The elections will be held in government-controlled areas, which Ford estimated at about a quarter of the country.
“It is hard to imagine that Assad is going in the short term, and even in the medium term, to lose control of the area between Aleppo south to Damascus and then over to the coast,” Ford said at the event organized by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Ford said three reasons had enabled Assad to survive: the inability of the opposition to assure the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs that it won’t be threatened, external support including Russian and Iranian financing and arms supplies and a “certain unity and coherence” within the Assad regime the opposition lacks.
Munzer Aqbiq, the opposition National Coalition’s chief of staff, said his group wouldn’t field any candidates in the vote.
“These are not elections,” he said. “Reform will come from changing the regime and not through it.”
France called the coming election a “farce” Tuesday and said Assad had a policy to “wipe out” his people in his bid to stamp out the uprising.
“The only objective of Bashar Assad is to wipe out his own people,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said. “Maybe he will remain the sole survivor of this policy of mass crimes, but it is a total impasse for Syria.”
“This election is a tragic farce. Nobody would understand that a presidential election is held in Syria with Assad as the only candidate,” Nadal said.