DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad declared his candidacy Monday for a new seven-year term in June presidential elections, more than three years into a revolt against his rule that has killed more than 150,000 people, uprooted another 9 million and touched off a humanitarian crisis.
While Assad had long suggested he would seek re-election, the official announcement put to rest any illusions that the man who has led Syria since 2000 has any intention of relinquishing power or finding a political solution to the conflict. Rather, he appears emboldened by a series of military victories in recent months that have strengthened his once tenuous grip on power.
The Syrian opposition and its Western allies have denounced the June 3 election as a sham designed to lend Assad, who is widely expected to win, a patina of electoral legitimacy. And it remains unclear how the government intends to hold any kind of credible vote when the country is engulfed in a civil war.
Vast areas of the country, including most of northern Syria, lie outside government control. Hundreds of thousands of people live in territory that is either contested, held by rebels or blockaded by pro-government forces. More than 2.5 million people have fled the country.
The government has presented the ballot box as the solution to the conflict: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, he will gracefully step aside.
Assad officially registered his candidacy Monday at the Supreme Constitutional Court, said Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham on state television. The statement was followed by blaring broadcasts of nationalistic music praising God. State TV also ran a brief biography of Assad, and quoted him as asking Syrians not to resort to celebratory gunfire.
The ruling Baath Party, to which Assad belongs, called his candidacy a “national necessity and a popular interest.”
Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door to other candidates, although the bill placed conditions effectively ensuring that almost no opposition figures would be able to run. It states that any candidate must have lived in Syria for the past 10 years and cannot have any other citizenship.
So far, six other presidential hopefuls have declared their candidacies, but analysts dismiss them as little more than stooges to provide a veneer of democratic legitimacy.
“He is the seventh contender, but realistically he is the only contender,” Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said of Assad. “The others were part of the decoration process to give the impression that the Syrian presidential elections this time will be different.”
Now in its fourth year, Syria’s crisis began with largely peaceful protests calling against Assad’s rule. After a violent government crackdown, the revolt slowly shifted into a civil war that has left the nation bitterly divided nation and seeped in blood.
Despite government assertions that the vote could resolve the conflict, there’s no indication that these polls will halt the violence or mend a bitterly divided nation.
The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, has called on Assad to step down in favor of a transitional governing body that would administer the country until free presidential and parliament elections can be held.
Louay Safi, a spokesman for Coalition, said the elections made clear that Assad has no intention of reaching a political resolution that would end the war.
“The political elite in Damascus is willing to sacrifice our country for one person — Bashar Assad — to stay in power,” Safi said. “This is bad for the Syrian people, because it means that this will be a protracted conflict, and more people will die.”
The Coalition took part in two rounds of peace talks with Syrian officials earlier this year. The two sides parted in February without making any progress on ending the conflict. A third round of talks is not currently planned.
For some in the anti-Assad camp, even the president’s bowing out wouldn’t be enough at this point.
An activist who uses the name Abu Akram al-Shami said he would ignore the vote, and that the war now wasn’t just against Assad, but “the whole regime.”
“Even if, let’s say, he (Assad) left office, as things now stand his regime would continue,” al-Shami said by Skype from Damascus.
France, a strong supporter of the opposition, described Assad’s candidacy and the election as “a tragic absurdity and parody.”
“No legitimacy could come out of this phantom-election in a devastated country,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal.
A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, Martin Schaefer, said that given the war, “it’s completely impossible to ask the Syrian people about their political wishes.”
Syrian officials have shrugged off doubts about how the government intends to hold a credible vote in the middle of the conflict.
A Syrian lawmaker told The Associated Press last week that there would not be voting centers in areas controlled by the opposition.
The elections’ timing suggests that Assad, who has been supported diplomatically by Iran and Russia, wants to give himself electoral credibility while he is militarily strong. An ongoing government offensive aimed at recapturing key urban areas has made headway, and Assad appears to be aiming to try to have them under state control before the vote is held.
The Syrian president draws some of his support from the country’s Christian and Muslim minority groups that have huddled behind him, fearing for their future should hard-line Sunni Muslim rebels come to power.
Although Syria enjoyed liberal, albeit tumultuous, parliamentary democracy in the fifties, most of the country’s citizens were born under the rule of the Assad family. Bashar took over from his late father, Hafez, who ruled the country for nearly 30 years.
Both Assads were elected by referendums in which they were the only candidates and voters cast yes-or-no ballots.
Lucas reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Diaa Hadid in Beirut, Frank Jordans in Berlin, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.