Syria extends voting for parliamentary polls criticized as "sham"

The Syrian government on Wednesday extended voting in parliamentary elections by five hours, citing high turnout.

Polling was originally due to end at 7 pm (1700 GMT) in elections for the country's rubber-stamp parliament that are taking place in government-held areas.

State news agency SANA reported that a judicial commission in charge of the polls extended the voting period by five hours until midnight.

The elections, expected to be dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's Arab nationalist Baath Party and other regime loyalists, have been dismissed as a provocation by al-Assad's opponents.

The embattled president and his wife, Asma, were among the morning voters in the capital, Damascus.

Al-Assad hailed what he said was "widescale participation by all elements of society."

Some 3,500 candidates - screened for loyalty - are contesting 250 seats in the polls, the third to be held since the 2011 uprising against al-Assad began.

The outgoing parliament was elected in 2012 and al-Assad himself was elected for a third seven-year term in 2014.

Syrian television showed lines of voters waiting outside polling stations.

About 63 per cent of the population lived in government-held areas as of November, according to estimates by analyst Fabrice Balanche of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy.

Candidates' banners were on display in Damascus, with slogans such as "Vote for Security," "Vote for our children who died," and "We are the voices of our brave army."

Some residents in regime-controlled areas said most of the voters appeared to be loyalist students and workers employed in the public sector or by pro-Assad businesspeople.

For the first time, serving army personnel were allowed to vote. Arrangements were also made for voters displaced by the conflict from their home districts.

"The participation of the army in this election is natural because a high percentage of the Syrian people are now members of the army and security forces," an official at the Defence Ministry said on condition of anonymity.

Germany and France have said that they regard the elections as illegitimate, and even moderate Damascus-based opposition groups tolerated by the government are boycotting them.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned the al-Assad regime against using the polls as a pretext for delaying the new round of Syrian peace talks.

"For us it is clear," Steinmeier told dpa. "Under current conditions, where hundreds of thousands are denied free access to food and medicine, fair elections are inconceivable.

"We are once again facing a critical moment," he added, calling on both the Syrian opposition and government "to join in the search for solutions and not to play for time."

France condemned the polls as a "sham."

"They are being held without a true electoral campaign, under the aegis of an oppressive regime without international observation," a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said.

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was to resume peace talks aimed at resolving the five-year-old conflict by meeting opposition delegates in Geneva, his office said.

Syrian government negotiators were expected to join the UN-brokered talks only after the elections.

An initial round of talks was suspended in February amid opposition anger at a Russian-backed government offensive near the northern city of Aleppo which sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing.

De Mistura said last week that the only election he is interested in is a vote that the UN Security Council has said should take place within 18 months under UN supervision.

The Syrian opposition has insisted repeatedly that there can be no future role for al-Assad and has demanded that he step down even before the UN-mandated elections.

Syria's civil war, which started in 2011 after al-Assad's forces launched a brutal crackdown against protests, has cost a quarter of a million lives and driven half the country's populations from their homes, according to UN estimates.

Last update: Wed, 13/04/2016 - 20:22

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