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Syria to vote on constitution amid bloodshed

Syrians are to vote on Sunday on a new constitution that could end five decades of single-party rule, although the opposition has called a boycott amid a bloody crackdown on dissent.

world Updated: Feb 25, 2012 07:35 IST

Syrians are to vote on Sunday on a new constitution that could end five decades of single-party rule, although the opposition has called a boycott amid a bloody crackdown on dissent.

The newly proposed constitution was drafted as part of reforms promised by President Bashar al-Assad's government in a bid to calm an 11-month uprising against his regime that began with democracy protests.

It is unclear how the ballot can go ahead in parts of the country hit by violence as government forces move in on protest hubs and rebel strongholds such as the besieged central city of Homs.

But posters and billboards calling on people to vote are displayed across Damascus, with state television airing non-stop programmes from around the country about the new constitution.

"This is the first time that messages are limited to inviting citizens to go to polls without urging them to vote (yes or no) for the constitution," information minister Adnan Mahmud told AFP.

The opposition has urged voters to stay away and to go on strike, while demanding Assad's ouster and an end to the crackdown that monitors say has killed more than 7,600 people since March 2011.

"We call for a boycott of the referendum because, by doing this, the regime is trying to hide its crimes," said the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition activist network that organises protests.

"We also call for a general strike Sunday throughout the country," it said in a statement this week.

On a main square in Damascus, Sana Nasser, a woman dressed in military battle fatigues, distributed copies of the new constitution to motorists passing through the busy roundabout.

"The president met with everyone to ask about people suffering, and to get their grievances. It is because of that he has given instructions to draft a new constitution," said the woman in her forties.

But an unemployed 31-year-old woman who only identified herself as Salma said she would not vote.

"Since I was born, there have not been democratic elections in this country, and now this will change nothing. We do not have the right to express our opinions, and there are still political prisoners," said Salma.

"There should have been an election of a pluralist constitutional assembly to draft the constitution so at least I could have the impression that I have given my opinion," added the sociology graduate.

In Sunday's referendum, more than 14 million people over the age of 18 are eligible to cast ballots at 13,835 polling stations.

Sunni Muslims account for 75% of Syria's population of 22 million, with the rest made up of minorities, including 12% for the Alawite community that Assad hails from.

They are being asked to vote on the constitution framed by a committee of 29 members appointed by the Syrian president.

One of the main changes in the newly proposed charter is to Article 8.

It now says Syria's political system will be based on "pluralism," dropping its previous declaration that Assad's Baath Party is "the head of state and society."

This effectively ends the monopoly on power the Baathists have enjoyed since taking over in 1963 following a coup d'etat.

Al-Baath, the newspaper of the ruling party, said in an editorial this week that the change to Article 8 "does not represent a loss for the party and just keeps up with political and social evolution."

While the new text drops all references to Syria being a socialist state, Article 60 maintains that "half the deputies must be workers and peasants."

But under the new charter, the president would maintain his grip on broad powers as he still names the prime minister and government, and in some cases can reject laws.

Article 88 states the president can be elected for two seven-year terms, but Article 155 says these conditions only take effect after the next election for a head of state set for 2014.

This means that, in theory, Assad could stay at the helm for another 16 years.

Another provision that has alerted secular groups and religious minorities is Article 3, which stipulates the president should be Muslim, and that "Islamic jurisprudence is a main source of legislation."

But Syria specialist Thomas Pierret said that regardless of the changes, the type of political system was of little relevance in a country "dominated by the intelligence service."

"Nothing indicates that this would change under the current regime," said Pierret, lecturer on Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh.