In Syria, A Tense Election Day With Winner Little In Doubt

Syrians are voting in the country's presidential election, even as a civil war continues to rage around them. Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal is in Syria, and he discusses the disputed election.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour in Syria, in the midst of a wartime election with a foregone conclusion. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad urged voters to the ballot box for a presidential election that is expected to lead to his third seven-year term. Polls opened early this morning, though not in rebel-held areas where opposition groups condemned the vote. In a moment, we'll have more on what effect this election could have on the long-running conflict in Syria.

CORNISH: But first more on how the day unfolded at the polls. Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal is in Damascus and joins us now. And, Sam, talk a little bit about what you saw today. What was the scene like at the polling stations?

SAM DAGHER: What I saw was people chanting, dancing. Even election workers doing the same salute. It was more an occasion for a lot of these supporters to come out and show their support for Mr. Assad. And I also witnessed and recorded a number of violations - serious violations at a lot of these polling stations, where I saw election workers calling their relatives and recording their national ID numbers because here you need your national ID to vote. And these election workers were telling their relatives, you know, we can vote on your behalf. You don't have to come. We will, you know, stuff ballots into the box.

CORNISH: Now, you've reported this stuffing of ballot boxes and this group voting. What was the response from the Assad regime's election officials to these allegations?

DAGHER: Well, I contacted an advisor to the Minister of Interior. And she said these were serious allegations, that they were taking them very seriously, but that one should look at the big picture. That this is, you know, the first step for, you know, a democratic process in Syria, and it was going to take time. And the people were not used to this because you have to remember, you know, when the Assad family took over power in Syria in 1971, Mr. Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad - it's been referendums ever since. And this is the first time they have candidates running against the president, so to speak.

CORNISH: You talked about there being a lot of pro-Assad supporters turning out. But was it always clear that was the case? Did you talk to voters who felt pressured to vote by the government?

DAGHER: Yes. I mean, I talked to a lot of these voters in Homs. And there I spoke to a number of people, and they told me that - for instance, a government employee said she was under tremendous pressure from her employer to vote, as well as from pro-regime militia men, who were stationed in her neighborhood. They were going door by door, telling people to put up posters of Mr. Assad and to make sure they come out today to vote.

CORNISH: We've heard that polling is open until midnight, that hours were extended. Can you talk about the reasons why? If everyone thinks it's a foregone conclusion, the answer - why more hours?

DAGHER: Well, I think it's - I mean, I was just out now for a couple hours, after the voting was extended. And I can tell you, the streets of Damascus are deserted. People are afraid of these mortars that are - that have been raining on Damascus all day. And we're told they're being fired from the rebel-held areas around the city. And also, I went into a couple of these polling stations at night, and they were empty. And some of the election, you know, workers there said there was no reason for this extension.

CORNISH: Sam Dagher - he's a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Damascus. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAGHER: Sure.

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